Kristen Ann Ehrenberger will graduate from the Medical Scholars Program in May 2016 and start residency in June. Full reviews of these audiobooks can be found on her blog, Frau Doktor Doctor.
It is interview season for fourth-year medical students, who are traveling around the country to visit hospitals and residency programs. The lucky ones are able to schedule some of their interviews together and can drive, thereby avoiding the hassles of train travel or the prospect of arriving at a distant destination by airplane sans luggage and dark-colored suit. For a road trip that took me from Champaign, IL, through Columbus, OH, to Baltimore, MD, and back via Pittsburgh, PA, I decided to venture into the (new for me) genre of the audiobook. Some people like to listen to familiar books, either so they can pay more attention to the road or so they can quote along. Oh sure, I could have used those hours more “productively” to listen to pathology lectures, but I chucked guilt out the window and borrowed a variety of fiction and comedy selections from the Champaign and Urbana Public Libraries.
On the recommendation of a friend, I began with British author Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal (book, 2004; unabridged audiobook, 2005). It is the thirty-third installment in his fantasy-fiction Discworld series, but you do not have to have read any of the other novels or even to have heard of the series to understand this fantastic story. It takes place in Ankh-Morpok, capital city of a principality that exists in a quasi-feudal present in which transportation is by horse or carriage and execution is by hanging but money is counted in dollars. The main character is Moist von Lipwig, a con-man with whom Lord Havelock Vetinari makes a deal: choose death or the position as Postmaster General. There follow maddening antics at the hands of the postal employees, a discussion of labor rights involving big clay golems, and a romance with a chain-smoking dame. The plot is fairly unpredictable, and the action is often laugh-out-loud funny. Hands down, the best part is Stephen Briggs, the voice actor who has collaborated with Pratchett on a number of projects. He gives the characters delightful and unique English, Scottish, and Irish accents. (One of the golems is French.) This audiobook was an unqualified success as such.
The other three audiobooks to which I listened were good but not great, for different reasons. For instance, Katherine Kellgren reads Shannon Hale’s Austenland (book and unabridged audiobook, 2007) in a style I could only describe as “breathy English romance,” whereas underneath I found Hale’s writing wittier and more dryly American. I hardly dare confess that I have never finished a single book by Jane Austen, although I have watched one of the movies—maybe Pride and Prejudice?—and then only once. Even if I do not exactly fit the demographic Hale surely had in mind when she penned this little romantic comedy, it charmed me. The novel features a New Yorker in her early 30s who is obsessed with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 mini-series. Jane Hayes has had a series of failed relationships and contemplates swearing off men altogether when she inherits a dream vacation to an English resort that caters to romantic fantasies. After setting up the action, Hale intersperses the plot chapters with vignettes enumerating each boy and man who cheated on Jane, dropped her, or could not live up to her idea(l) of Prince Charming. Unsurprisingly, the narrative arc traces what I assume is a typical Austen novel, with the heroine learning about herself as she tries on a variety of suitors, finally and improbably but deliciously ending up with her nemesis-cum-secret-admirer.
Perhaps the least successful audiobook among them was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction (book 2005, abridged audiobook, 2004). The chapters of this satirical history and civics lesson are written by the Comedy Central staff and voiced by actors on the show a decade ago, including Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms. They lampoon American exceptionalism, voter apathy, and the quagmire that is the American Congress; some of the funnier chapters are Samantha Bee’s comparisons with Canada. The book received many awards but in my opinion does not translate very well to the audiobook format. The humor either builds slowly and subtly as hypocrisies accumulate over sentences and paragraphs, or else it comes from long, wry asides. Often the listener has to know the actual history, or facts about how a bill becomes a law, or the composition of the Supreme Court in the early 2000s, to get the joke. By the third CD I realized that Stewart and Colbert’s largely monotone delivery was due to the exceptional dryness of the wit. This kind of humor must be transmitted better on the page or on the stage than spoken aloud.
After Going Postal, my favorite selection on the trip was Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son (book and unabridged audiobook, 2006). Mosley has made a career of writing about black male heroes like detective Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins; Fortunate Son pairs unlikely brothers to question the role fate plays in our lives. The story begins as a sweet, interracial romance between a poor black florist and a rich white surgeon who fall in love and raise their sons with a visionary Vietnamese-refugee nanny in a Beverly Hills mansion. After “Mama Branwyn” dies and her ex-boyfriend and mother show up to claim 6-year-old Tommy, the brothers’ lives diverge drastically. The skinny, introspective, black boy drops out of school almost immediately and lives on the streets, having a series of wild and violent encounters with drug dealers, gang members, and the police. Blonde Adonis Eric is popular, athletic, and excels at school, but he seems to carry a curse that dooms the people around him. Which is the fortunate son of the title? Listening to Lorraine Toussaint voice this audiobook while winding through the Appalachian Mountains did not lend itself to pausing and rewinding in order to savor the delicious turns of phrase with which Mosley closes many chapters. I rather wish I had read it in hardcopy, so I could set my own pace and manipulate the pages of this intriguing text.