EVERY year, when Thanksgiving dinner rolls around, it’s my family’s tradition to ask each person seated at the dinner table to name something that makes him or her grateful. Many families do this.
We got the idea a few years ago while celebrating the holiday with our in-laws, and our kids decided to keep doing it. However corny it felt at first, it seemed like a good move to make a note of our “blessings.”
It’s interesting to see the varied response this practice inspires in guests. Some, like my late mother, are averse to anything sentimental. So they’ll pass, or make a joke. Others will offer something sappy, if sincere, which the rest of the table must resist puncturing with sarcasm. Others – especially those who’ve had serious health issues -- may say something that stops us all in our tracks, like, “I’m happy to still be here.”
Still others (not naming any names) will say something like “I’m grateful that Dad was in charge of the turkey, and not Mum.” While some mothers might be tempted to retort, “You should be grateful that corporal punishment is against the law,” I strive to admire the fact that my kids feel comfortable teasing their parents.
Anyhoo, this year, instead of coming up with the usual things for which I am, and should be, grateful – a healthy family, a roof over our heads, plenty to eat – I might add to my list something that has actually changed my life: audio books.
When I was recovering from brain surgery at the Lions Gate Hospital a couple of years ago, I couldn’t read, so my husband Stanley bought me some audio books to listen to on my iPod. They were a godsend. That Christmas, I was still having trouble, so he subscribed me to a service called Audible.com, which allows me to choose two books per month from its vast selection, download them, then transfer those downloaded books to my iPod.
There are several fabulous things about audio books. The first is that, unlike printed books, or books you read on any Kindle-like device, they don’t demand your undivided attention. Thus, you can enjoy them while completing mindless tasks, like sorting laundry or walking the dog. My canine companion and I have both benefited from the fact that our treks now extend well beyond an hour, simply because I’m really enjoying my book. (My dog is an extremely poor conversationalist.)
The second advantage is that stories gain vast amounts of energy when they’re properly read aloud – something any great elementary schoolteacher knows. When a reader is fine, like the actor Saul Reichlin, who narrates the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, it’s sheer joy to listen. Conversely, when he or she isn’t so hot, with strange pronunciations or a monotonous tone, a lacklustre book becomes even more irritating.
That’s rare, though. Usually, the readers on audio books are superb. Australian writer Steve Tolz’s amazing, darkly comic epic, A Fraction of the Whole, is beautifully read with Australian accents by actors Colin McPhillamy and Craig Baldwin. This brilliant effort gave my Labrador retriever abs and me more than 25 hours of listening and rambling pleasure.
I don’t mean to be a shill for Audible – there are other such book clubs, this is just the one I know. You can also buy real audio books in CD form; a kind friend, for example, sent me a highly entertaining collection of monologues on disc called Talking Heads, by the English playwright Alan Bennett. It stars such British luminaries as Julie Walters, Thora Hird and Patricia Routledge. A solitary drawback: CDs clutter up your shelves. Audible’s vast array of books, from a wide variety of eras, is a joy to explore and takes up no physical space.
I just finished The Good Soldier, about two couples whose deep friendship winds up in tragedy, written by Ford Maddox Ford in 1915. I’m now ploughing through Henry James’s creepy 1888 novella The Aspern Papers. It’s about a man who slowly insinuates himself into the Venetian villa and lives of an old woman and her spinster niece just so he can get his hands on some valuable papers.
Audible’s library isn’t all fusty old fiction, though. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom will be my next acquisition. I’ve listened to modern non-fiction works by such writers as Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) and A.J. Jacobs (The Know-It-All). A few months ago I devoured both Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter and Samantha Bee’s I Know I Am, But What Are You, narrated by these funny women themselves. One bad thing about listening to comedians on an iPod – the people you pass in the parks surely wonder why you’re cackling to yourself as you pick up dog turds.
Among the current selections at Audible.com are Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice; Dana Milbank’s Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea-Bagging of America; Elmore Leonard’s Pronto; and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
There is a problem with audio books – it’s not easy to re-read a section. You can’t leaf back a couple of pages to go over a key plot point; you have to return to the beginning of the chapter or, if there are no tidy chapter delineations, the beginning of a section that has been arbitrarily determined.
If the book isn’t that great to begin with but you feel you should finish it anyway, as was the case with Giulia Melucci’s tedious I Laughed, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, or Bich Minh Nguyen’s uninspired Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, this quickly becomes irksome. On the other hand, if a book’s ins and outs are gripping but complex, as in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, you find yourself re-visiting an awful lot of violent scenes featuring deviant Swedes as you listen more closely to a chapter, trying to sort through characters whose last names are a massive pile-up of “-sson”s, “-mman”s and “-sstrom”s.
That’s a small price to pay for the wonderful experience of hearing a book, however. If you haven’t tried it since your bedtime story days, check it out. You can get audio books at the library, too. Settle into a comfy chair, close your eyes and listen. Even better, let an engrossing book seep into your brain while you romp through the North Shore’s glorious autumn woods with your four-footed “bestie.” I guarantee, it trumps pumpkin pie.