In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Still one of my all-time favorite books, period.
I first read In a Sunburned Country ten years ago, and loved it (and folded over page corners like folding was a new skill that was going out of style).
On rereading, which was actually a listen to the audio version read by the author, I still found this love-story to a country to be very, very funny, as well as enchanting, thought-provoking, melancholy, and wise.
What I love about Bryson’s voice is how he’s able to make you laugh really hard-truly-this book should come with a warning label for those who dare to read it in public: “This book WILL cause sudden and unexpected outbursts of laughter which may appear especially unusual if you are in the middle of jogging on a treadmill with a serious expression on your face.”
But also, underneath the humor, Bryson speaks with wonder and curiosity about the world around him. He notices the gigantic lobster sculpture, as well as the Sydney Opera House, he notes the absurdity that frequently accompanies our adventures, historical, and present.
Bryson seems, at heart, to deeply like the world around him, and the people in it. I highly recommend In a Sunburned Country to anyone interested in Australia, travel, or learning something new. Perhaps even more importantly, I’d rank this in my top ten list of books to read when you’re feeling sad. It will brighten your day.

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The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Boy Who Drew MonstersThe Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This wasn’t poorly written, but I enjoyed it less that I thought I would.
I did not connect with any of the main characters…they all seemed to just be showing the least altruistic of human motives, not evil, necessarily, but just, you know, being drunk, and arguing, and being mean to each other.
My favorite character was probably the creepy but wonderful Miss Tiramaku, the ancient, autistic housekeeper to the town priest. With her one cloudy eye, she saw more of what was truly going on than anyone else the novel.
Overall, The Boy Who Drew Monsters was a ghost story with a lot of potential, but one that, rather than giving me chills, just left me cold.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of Station Eleven, read by Kirsten Potter.
I had high expectations going in, as the book came recommended by friends and in reviews. But especially on the heels of reading The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey, which blew my socks off, I found Station Eleven to be a bit of a let down.
What you should know, if you’re thinking of reading it:
Station Eleven is much more a story about people’s lives intertwining, than it is about exploring their lives in a specific, imagined, post-epidemic future.  This is not a bad thing, but what it means is that Station Eleven is
more a work of fiction, than it is a work of science fiction or suspense.
However, this said, Station Eleven left me curiously unmoved, feeling kind of flat. The structure of the novel, which includes looping flashbacks and perspective shifts, didn’t work for me. I believe the author meant to use this structure in order to show how everyone’s lives “interlock,” which I believe she mentions at one point. But the way this was done merely served to keep me from identifying strongly with anyone in the novel.
Also, rather than using this flashback/perspective shift structure to reveal new opinions and viewpoints, the author instead often ended up repeating the same facts multiple times. For example, several different characters described the same, unusual crossbow. The repetition added a Groundhog-Day element to the story, and was not necessary to clarify what was going on.
One clearly spelled-out theme in Station Eleven is the Star Trek quote, “survival is insufficient.” This quote is written on the caravans of the traveling symphony, which performs for the survivors of the post-apocalyptic world of the novel.
Unfortunately, the ideas presented regarding art and survival never crystallized in a powerful way. Station Eleven ended without a sense of completion, or of something new shared, or realized.
Although Station Eleven contained some beautiful scenes, it left me ultimately uninspired.

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Weekend thoughts

So recently, I’ve been wondering about how reading a hard copy of a book vs. listening to the audio version affects our enjoyment, experience of, and final opinion of, the story. I’ve noticed that reading the book takes more actual concentration on my part, so if I’m really tired, listening to the audio is definitely easier. Imagining the book while listening to it takes little effort, while imagining a book from reading the written word does take some level of focus or conscious creative work on my part.
However, with that said, I am a pretty fast reader, and I feel that if I do have enough mental energy to read, I feel like I am able to become more fully engrossed in the world of the book when I am reading it myself, rather than listening to it. I think part of this is the speed at which I read. I often find it frustrating, when listening to audio books, in that the narrator seems to be going just a bit too slow. I’ve tried speeding up the audio, but listening to a jerky, chipmunk version of the story definitely kills the mood.  Also, much of the time, I find that the narrator’s voice is jarring in a way that serves to remove me from the immediacy of the story itself. Much of the time, I find myself analyzing how the narrator is interpreting the story, and wondering at some of the ways in which he or she says things. Often, I think that if I had read a certain sentence of dialogue in my head, I would have given it a different intonation than the narrator chooses. So this affects my interaction with the story in two ways. First, it sets to distance me from the immediacy of the story itself, because I am in an analytical frame of mind. And secondly, I am experiencing the characters and tone of the story in the way in which the audio narrator does, rather than in the way I myself would have if I was reading the book alone.
Third, when listening to an audio version of a book, I am almost always multitasking. I listen while driving, or while working out. On the other hand, I almost always read books when I am alone, in a quiet place. My attention at that time is focused almost exclusively on the world of the novel.
All of these things lead to me having a more intense, immediate, and personal experience of the story when I am reading it.
However, there are a few times when I feel that experiencing books in their audio form is preferable to reading them myself. As mentioned above, one of these times is when I am simply too tired to read, but would like the escape and pleasure of being in the world of the book. At those times, I can lay in bed or on the sofa, relax, shut my eyes, and just listen.
Secondly, there are some books whose narrators are just fabulous, talented at accents and voices, and interpretations of humor and emotion. At these times, I feel that the narrators bring the story to life in an amazing way. Two such examples are Heather O’Neill, who narrated the audio version of The Likeness, by Tana French, and Steven Crossley, who has narrated When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson. In these examples, I enjoyed the books more because I listened to them, rather than reading them myself.
The third time in which I think audio may be preferable to the written word, is when the book I am reading is so dense, “literary,” or factual, that I would find it prohibitively difficult to read myself. Because I read primarily for pleasure, I often lack the patience to sit down with a large nonfiction volume, or even a fictional narrative that is rather dense. Listening to these types of works means that I can experience them while doing other things, thus avoiding the impatience I would feel if I was forcing myself to sit still and focus on them alone. An example of this is The Likeness. Although Tana French is one of my favorite authors, her novels are not what I would call “light” reads. While I struggle to read them myself (which I did with her first novel, In the Woods) I appreciate them immensely when I am listening to them being performed by a talented narrator.
As a final thought, this year I have listened to mainly thrillers and suspense novels on audio. With the exception of The Likeness and When Will There Be Good News?, I find that the audio version disconnects me just enough from the book to diminish my enjoyment of it. I wonder if I would find listening to humor, fantasy, or historical fiction a more successful experience. I also wonder if some of the thrillers that I listened to and gave mediocre reviews of would have rated higher if I had read them myself.
What are your thoughts on audio vs. hard copy books? Which do you prefer, and why?
Ultimately, I am extremely glad to have both options in which to experience a book. Story, in all its forms, adds immeasurable enjoyment to my life.

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