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Pittu’s reading can sometimes seem slightly monotonic and withdrawn as he tests out the main character of Theodore Decker, a 13-year-old who loses his mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art following a terrorist attack on the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 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? 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.