Did You Hear? John C. Reilly Reads ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ — An Audio Book Review

Presented by Audible

Listen in on your own, buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or get a free download here.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t require much of an introduction. For those of you who may have only seen the 1975 film or pretended to read it in high school or college or, hell, even seen a parody or homage in other media (an episode of The Simpsons comes to mind), the novel is one that never seems to go out of fashion. Why? Because it deals with human behavior and emotional states on their most primitive, primal levels.

The main characters are R.P. McMurphy, a rapscallion with qualities equally shining and cruddy; “Chief” Bromden, a towering, seemingly speechless, compliant half-Native American; and Nurse Ratchet, a power-driven, manipulative matriarch of the insane asylum. In the book, a stranger (McMurphy) comes to town asylum, piques the interest of its inhabitants (“Chief,” the orderlies, doctors, nurses, and the other patients), and for the first time challenges the norms and conformities of the Nurse Ratchet’s establishment.

Written by the sage Ken Kesey, this novel quickly garnered acclaim and respect, reaching “classic” status almost instantaneously. It has everything a great book should have, and therefore, it is without debate that it is deserving of high production values when adapted as an audiobook. And this audiobook is skillfully—dare I say masterfully—narrated and performed by actor John C. Reilly.

Truth be told, I listened to this audiobook straight through without stopping on a rainy Saturday from first cup of coffee to well-past dinner. Non-stop. No joke. I never turned it off or paused it.

The audiobook is flawless – there’s nary a moment your mind wanders to Reilly’s performance in Boogie Nights or Step Brothers. Reilly embodies every character’s voice and personality by keying into their emotional state and motivations through his change in inflection, tone, and lowering or raising his voice when the narrative calls for it. His dictation is fluid and never a distraction and only heightens the text.

This audiobook is a performance of the highest caliber and frankly it’s as timeless as the book itself. This is the type of audiobook you use to pop an audiobook skeptic’s cherry… or your own.

Listen in on your own, buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or get a free download here.

Did You Hear? An Audio Book Review of Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Doomed’

Presented by Audible

Listen in on your own: Buy Doomed or get a free download here.

When I think about the 13-year-old narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, Doomed, I think about this line from Pat Benatar’s Hell Is for Children: “Because hell/Hell is for children/And you know that their little lives can become such a mess.” Madison Spencer is our young guide through Doomed, the second novel in a planned trilogy that began with Damned, in which Madison arrived in Hell following her own demise. As she pieced together just what had happened to her, she gave us an unholy and graphic tour of the pit of the damned. Gruesome as it was, Palahniuk’s patented black humor ignites the story. And on full display in both novels is Palahniuk’s best skill as a writer: an irresistible and distinctive narrative voice. Tai Simmons narrates both novels, and her flawless elocution, immersive characterization, and compelling delivery do Palahniuk’s talent proper justice.

Following the events of Damned, (note: mild spoilers ahead) Madison finds herself back on Earth and stuck in purgatory. She was a “chunky,” unpopular teenager suffering through the hell of middle school before she died, and in Doomed, more details of her life story are fleshed out both figuratively and quite literally. Readers can take the details at face value—as bizarre as they are—or as slice-and-dice metaphor. There’s a dose of Glee, without all the shitty writing and singing, and a lot of Judy Blume—if Judy Blume went to hell. I’m not going to list any of these details or summarize the crazy scenes here because I truly believe stepping into this world blind is the best. Discover it for yourself.

There are moments of pure disgust so graphic that I felt I did not know how to react to them, except maybe to laugh or wince or both simultaneously. However, if you have a sick, twisted sense humor you’ll find the majority of it really funny. I sure did; I laughed in public while taking the long walk to work. To passersby I may have looked deranged, laughing to myself, since my headphones were not visible under my hood. But, really, who gives a shit about public displays of laughter when you’re enjoying a novel narrated by a unique character in an insane situation that works so well as an audiobook?

I’ve read Palahniuk when I was a late teenager—Choke and Fight Club come to mind—but it’s been over a decade since I encountered one of his novels. Yet, his trademark dark humor and ability to dish out kooky, wacky facts still entertain and enlighten. And considering the voices of all his narrators are so well written and consistent, once you start, you just can’t stop. I listened to this 9+-hour audiobook within a 24-hour period: not just on my commute, but also when I got home from work; while I worked out; while I ate; while I ran errands; while I just sat on my couch eating or lounging, no other distractions. The great thing about a strong narrative voice narrated by a strong audiobook narrator is that you don’t hit any bumps. The narrative drive already present as text just ignites and keeps on burning.

Many readers I talk to are unsure of audiobooks, wondering if as a reader they don’t receive the same intellectual stimulation from audiobooks as they do from reading the books. Many of those people also read very little, and I assume that’s because they can’t find time, can’t prioritize reading for pleasure over other tasks at hand; and maybe, with all the distractions available to us these days, just can’t sit still and concentrate on something for more than 20 minutes at a time. I’m guilty of that, too, sometimes. But I can claim that I lay on my couch and listened to almost four hours straight of this audiobook without doing anything else. My eyes were closed, unstrained and uncrossed.

If you’re like me and haven’t dipped into the dementedly hilarious worlds of Chuck Palahniuk for years, or if you are a regular reader of his novels and haven’t gotten to Doomed yet, I urge you, “Dear Gentle Tweeter” to download the audiobook this time.

Listen in on your own: Buy Doomed or get a free download here.

Did You Hear? An Audio Book Review of ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

Presented by Audible

Listen in on your own:  buy The Goldfinch or get a free download here.

There isn’t much I didn’t do while listening to the audiobook of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. But that’s what happens when you’re with a recording for 32 and a half hours: you take it along for your runs through the park, fill your with it apartment to make the task of cleaning your winter closet less laborious, and plug in during your to- and from- subway ride to work. (That’s the short list.)

And, if you’re going to dedicate nearly a day and a half of your life listening to a single recording—the equivalent of 784 pages—your guide through the text better be good. Enter narrator David Pittu, an actor who’s done a fair share of children’s and mystery books, but isn’t terribly well known for performances on literary tombs like Tartt’s Goldfinch.

Pittu’s reading can sometimes seem slightly monotonic and withdrawn as he tests out the main character of Theodore Decker, a 13-year-old who loses his mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art following a terrorist attack on the gallery. But as Tartt digs into Theo’s emotional quandary, so too does Pittu sink his teeth into the character, quickly convincing the listener that no other performance would suit the book.

As Theo navigates life after his mother’s death, he meets a cast of characters who influence him in different ways—all of whom Pittu portrays differently. Particularly spot-on is the performance of Boris, Theo’s semi-Russian best friend, who infuses a unique life into his sections of the book. Also notable is the atmosphere Pittu creates as Andy stays with the Barbour family, emphasizing exactly how much of an outsider Theo is, and how his role there fluctuates.

There are plenty of reason to be captivated by The Goldfinch: its place atop the best of 2013 lists you’ve been reading for the past few weeks tell you everything I don’t need to. When I was listening along with reading on my Kindle, mostly on the train or reading in bed, I was at full-attention. Due to the novel’s sheer length, however, I found myself doing many other things with the audiobook on, which had me distracted from the story at times—this, the only drawback.

Still, I wouldn’t have tackled this massive novel without the audiobook—I just wouldn’t have had the time to sit down and read it all this month. Because, hey, reading while literally Christmas present shopping? Turns out, I ended up buying someone The Goldfinch.

Listen in on your own:  buy The Goldfinch or get a free download here.

Did You Hear? BlackBook’s Audio Book Review of Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys

Presented by Audible

Listen in on your own: buy Skagboys  or get a free download here.

Instead of spending hours of my week unnecessarily fiddling with Twitter and Facebook feeds and/or watching TV and/or falling into the black hole of YouTube and/or complaining I have very little time to read, I spent those hours listening to Skagboys by Irvine Welsh, expertly narrated by the Scottish actor Tam Dean Burn. No doubt, listening to this gargantuan novel (24+ hours of audiobook) is a commitment, so I listened to it while going about activities that don’t require a lot of mental energy but rather physical energy: working out, commuting, walking miles through a concrete jungle, grooming, and eating. It was perfect, because Skagboys demands your attention, and once the story grabs you, you’re tossed into a world both harrowing and comical, populated by characters both repugnant and charming.

These characters are familiar to anyone who has read Trainspotting and Porno: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Allison, and my personal favorite from the Welsh canon, Franco Begbie. We’re given a thorough account of their early lives in lowland Scotland. It’s all here: family dynamics, motivations, the effects of politics and socio-economic conditions, and the story about how these characters encounter and succumb to skag, Welsh’s “favourite word for heroin.” It truly is an epic novel, not just in length, but also in character development, setting, theme, and most notably language. Much of it is written phonetically in raw Scottish dialect.

The most daunting part of reading Welsh, for me—and this is not an indictment but a welcomed challenge—is wrestling with this unvarnished and phonetic Scottish vernacular, particularly in the dialogue of his characters. Admittedly, I struggled a bit when I read Trainspotting and Porno a few years ago (though I really enjoyed the challenge of deciphering just what the hell was written!). But it’s equally rewarding, and maybe even more so, hearing Welsh’s prose and his characters’ dialogue blister and pop. This is where a talented narrator comes in and Tam Dean Burn nails it. To illustrate my point, here are two choice passages from the physical book: “So she’s wipin spunk offay her face, gaun aw fuckin panicky, ‘Whae wis that, wis that ma dad?’” and “Wir gaun doon thaire tae huv a wee fuckin blether wi this Hong Kong Fuey cunt! Ah feel masel swallyin hard wi nowt in ma throat.” One can’t simply skim-read these sentences. They demand a read, rinse, repeat. But listening to it?  These words simply flow and the effect is terrifically different.

Sure, some may call it a cheat, but I disagree. Here is where audiobooks are a gift to a reader who enjoys being forced out of his or her comfort zone and challenged by unfamiliar language, a reader who celebrates picking up phrases and terms known to other parts of the world but unknown to him- or herself. Here is where that somewhat intimidating but interesting book you picked up once when you were feeling ambitious stops being a guilt-inducing tome, collecting dust and coffee mug stains on your bedside table, and becomes, instead, what it truly is: an adventure that stimulates and illuminates all the dull corners of your day.

Listen in on your own: buy Skagboys  or get a free download here.

Did You Hear…? BlackBook’s Audio Book Review of Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

Listen in on your own: buy Hatching Twitter or get a free download here.

There is, unequivocally, no better place to listen to a book about the inception of Twitter than San Francisco. Of course, the company’s headquarters are located there, but also lining the streets of the city are the buildings in which Twitter, which we scarcely can imagine living without, was born; the concept for “Status,” its initial iteration, mused aloud in a car somewhere along Valencia in 2006.

Although I’m usually based in New York, my happy accident of pressing play while riding BART and strolling through the Mission only intensified the enjoyment of Daniel Thomas May’s audiobook performance. Listening to the story while walking the same streets the book takes place only intensified the tension. May, recognized best as The Walking Dead’s Allen, digs into the already fast-paced narrative to give it even more momentum. Because the drama in the text is omnipresent – almost Shakespearean as power changes hands so often –  May’s reading sustains the tension, bringing to life each character’s fear, frustration, anger, and disappointment. (And there is lots of it.) At one point, Twitter board member Bijan Sabet writes a panicked email with eighteen successive “fuck”s in it, and May doesn’t miss a beat. As the recording plays, May helps keep one wondering how a company with so many flaws ever got itself through each day.

Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal recounts the sticky six-year history of the service, following Twitter’s ideological evolution, power struggles and deception between its founders, as well as the narcissism and social change that 140 characters has sparked. The book is impeccably researched, painting a comprehensive, lively picture of not only the inner workings of the company itself, but also how the subsequent Twitterverse it created has provided context for so many events and movements. As the audiobook plays, one wonders when he’ll get a breather from the tension you could cut with a tweet, as Bilton says. (The answer: Never.) There’s one moment after Jack Dorsey’s dismissal as CEO during which board member Peter Fenton says, “I feel like I just walked into the conference room and there’s blood all over the wall.”

In Bitlon’s reporting, he obtains emails and internal documents, and talks to hundreds of sources to creative a narrative, ushering the reader through Twitter from the ground up. Hatching Twitter will forever change the way you look at everything from the status box to the Fail Whale, and give you pause about the purpose with which you Tweet — something on which co-founders Evan Williams and Dorsey never could agree in the first place. Sketched most unfavorably by Bilton is Dorsey, who comes off looking both petulant and egotistical — though everyone’s guilty for cutting out Noah Glass, who was responsible for many of Twitter’s earliest features, including timestamps, and the service’s namesake. Biz Stone, who can be credited for many of Twitter’s privacy policies, gets off easiest — and seems to be the only one who doesn’t get poison slipped into his punch.

Appropriately, the final minutes of my audiobook ticked down sitting on the runway waiting for my plane to take off back to New York. As the skyline of the Bay Area faded below me, I was stung by too apropos a parallel; I was leaving the knife-in-the-back world of San Francisco start-ups, and going back real life. When I landed, however, the first thing I did? Checked Twitter. May’s reading of one particular line from Hatching Twitter rang in my head; it really is “the accidental thing that turned the world upside down.”

Listen in on your own: buy Hatching Twitter or get a free download here.

Presented by Audible

Did You Hear…? A BlackBook Audiobook Review of 12 Years a Slave – Presented by Audible

Listen in on your own: buy Twelve Years a Slave or get your first download free here.

I admit failure. I’ve never read Solomon Northup’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave. It is not an exaggeration to say this is one of the most important stories of American history. The book was originally unearthed from obscurity and annotated by Dr. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon after being out of print for roughly 100 years. This past year saw a film adaptation that was met with resounding praise, and here I will admit my next failure: I have not watched that either. But my own failures here are now mute, because I have listened to the tremendous unabridged audiobook from Eakin Films & Publishing expertly narrated by Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr.

The memoirist in Twelve Years a Slave is Solomon Northup, a learned and free man—freed by birth, having been born in New York, living with his wife and children. He is an exceptional fiddle player and a jovial character in the town. His talents are enjoyed by locals, and when promoters from a circus come to town they offer him a generous amount of money to join their troupe and travel to Washington, D.C., for a special performance. The invite is a twisted ruse. Solomon is drugged and shackled and bound for slavery after being sold at auction in New Orleans. Throughout the narrative he serves a number of different masters, some more barbarous than others, and all the time unable to declare he is a free man to avoid severe punishment.

Solomon delivers a detailed account of his life as a slave, but more specifically it shows his observations of the situations, scenes, and other people surrounding him in this temporary hell. Temporary, here, because we know that he is able, somehow, to bear the constant torment and with the help of a Canadian abolitionist prove that he is indeed a free man. His perspective is what differentiates it from other true-life accounts of slavery in that Solomon is forced into a life to which he is wildly unaccustomed, and so allows the stories of characters he encounters to guide us through a world we can never witness—a world he too is unfamiliar with and equally horrified by.

Louis Gossett, Jr. is consistent in his reading, and his cadence subtlety but effectively changes when reading a scene depicting heartbreak, frustration, horror, and even lightheartedness (as little as there is). For instance, he skillfully narrates a horrific scene in which  a female slave at Master Epp’s house, Patsey, is stripped naked, tied down on all fours and savagely flogged. The listener has no choice but to sit with baited breath as Gossett, Jr. delivers these lines: “the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness—one I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror—was inflicted on the unfortunate Patsey,” and “Poor Patsey prayed piteously for mercy, but her prayers were vain.” Despite how hard at times it is to listen to the many scenes like this, it is hard to stop listening to the audiobook.

Brew a pot of coffee and take it all in in one sitting, because you are listening to a firsthand account of history. You will forget everything else and become enthralled by this story of a life altered by both extreme cruelty and extreme compassion. You will be angered and invigorated and relieved and challenged. It’s often been said that the memoir “reads like a novel” but it’s an irrelevant notion when you hear this wonderful and unique recording by Louis Gossett, Jr. He escapes seamlessly into Northup’s voice and grants us an ear to what is possibly the closest we could ever get to hearing Solomon Northup recount this incomparable story himself.

Listen to a clip below:

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Did You Hear? The Circle by Dave Eggers – Presented by Audible

I don’t have Instagram. I’ve never checked in anywhere on Foursquare. I haven’t commented on a YouTube video or given anything a +1 on Google+. And I relish the fact that I can opt-out. Things are a little different in Dave Eggers’ The Circle.

At Silicon Valley-based tech company the Circle, where 24-year-old Mae Holland has just begun work, participation in social media is compulsory – which she finds out when her supervisor sits her down during one of her first weeks to discuss the paltry level of activity on her Zing feed. Instead of being resentful (like this writer would have been), Mae works nights to get her ranking up to the top 2,000, making herself a fixture in community life both on campus and online.

Mae is in awe of the Circle, a hybrid of social media, personal tech, and sleek online finance companies on speed, where, upon taking her first tours through the sprawling 400-acre campus, she realizes she’s in a place unlike any other:

 Mae knew that she never wanted to work – never wanted to be – anywhere else… Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?

But with Eggers’ setup, we know that her ride at the Circle will be anything but utopian.

Readers begin to see cracks in façade as the company develops tiny, highly invasive cameras with the objective of controlling crime through accountability, which are installed all over the world. They’re one of the Circle’s many initiatives for ultimate transparency; ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN, and PRIVACY IS THEFT, they say. More projects are unveiled, each more questionable than the next, but as Mae rises through the ranks at the Circle, she latches tightly on to each.

Eggers succeeds at creating an alternate utopia that doesn’t seem so far from reach – tiny cameras planted in Egypt to monitor violence in Tahrir Square, being able to search your date’s allergies before your pick a restaurant, tracking chips embedded in children to eliminate kidnapping. Eggers doesn’t add a new layer to the discussion about privacy and information accessibility, but he handles the environment and conversation with a type of levity that borders on satire.

This humor, which can at times be biting, lends itself beautifully to the audiobook’s dramatic ebb and flow. Narrator Dion Graham reads with excellent pacing. He comes equipped with a strong range of portrayals: Mae’s wonderment and curiosity as she sets up in front of three screens at her desk; the urgency of new trainees in the Customer Experience sector as they’re hit by a deluge of queries; the confidence of the fixtures and cult-like personas at the circle. Though the intensity of his reading amps up with the suspense of the book, Graham never loses the essential hint of humor that encases the novel. Eggers’ scenes can sometimes carry on too long, which on an audiobook could feel a bit labored and drawn-out. But true to the books that precede The Circle, the author writes with a fluidity that makes five hundred pages of material – 14 and a half hours of audio – breeze by at a clip.

The plot goes deeper when Mae goes entirely transparent herself in a kind of Truman Show move, wearing a camera around her neck nearly non-stop. It marks her as hugely important with the top echelon of the Circle. Footage of everything Mae does becomes permanent in the cloud, accessible to anyone – “We don’t delete here, Mae,” her friend Annie says – and millions watch Mae navigate her sex life, her work life, her friendships, and even the death of a friend. As readers and listeners, we’re confronted with inescapable questions about the barriers between natural and performative actions, and public and private spaces.

Ultimately, Mae is given the chance to challenge the monopoly, and must decide whether or not the utopia is valuable and sustainable. Mae is a thin character, and we don’t feel much for her in the final scene, but the decision she faces and thoughts she has are resonant, and Eggers’ message caustic. If nothing else, readers come away from the ending feeling evaluative about the nature of security and what it means to be “social” in the age of Internet whatever-point-zero we’ve reached – and it might be an unusually long time before anyone would want to send a next tweet.

Listen in on your own: buy The Circle or get a free download here.