Ear Candy for the Road: Recommended Books on Tapes

Over the last 10 days, our family jumped into a rented car and drove close to 2,700 miles to and fro New Jersey. The trip, decided upon on a whim, was catalyzed by my very dear step-father Henry’s hospitalization, and the convergence of spring break, our schedule’s being somewhat open, and the feeling that we should just go, right now. So we did, and it was very beautiful and essential to have been there with my mom and stepdad, and to have seen other family. Yet because we were there for the same amount of time we also spent driving, this was one of those trips where the destination really needed to be the journey too. Lucky for us, I loaded up on a heap of books on CD, and here are some mini-reviews for your driving pleasure.

Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy — This lovely Irish tale told in several compelling voices unfolds a landscape and community, both in the vacinity of a small Irish town and the nearby woods, which contain a shrine to St. Ann, believed to invoke miracles and healing. When the woods and shrine are threatened by a new highway, the community finds itself divided and also thrust into thinking long and deep about what that shrine means to them as individuals and collectively. What follows are splendid, interlocking stories of love against the odds, loss and its aftermath, and how to live together as community, particularly as community members age, change, leave and return. It was a marvelous book for the road although I did walk into gas stations in rural Indiana thinking in an Irish accent as I hunted down more ice tea.

Fear of the Dark by Walter Mosley — While I don’t tend toward mysteries, I was amazed and thrilled at this one, set in 1950s L.A. and narrated by an enticingly honest and learned bookstore owned named Paris Minton, who is drawn unwittingly into situations way beyond his coping skills or courage. Luckily, his good friend, Fearless Jones, a cool-as-iced-coffee protector, fighter and investigator of all things dark, comes to his aid to help balance the trouble set into motion in a Rube Goldberg kind of arrangement by Paris’s cousin, Ulysesses “Useless” S. Grant, IV. Mosley is brilliant at setting scenes and conveying characters with charm, wit, music and vivid hues of description, and the language throughout borders on profound and hysterically funny simultaneously. Just listening to this made me feel far more cool than I am.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See — This fascinating, disturbing and often very melancholy long-life narrative tells the story of a friendship between two women who find their fortunes shifting over their lives in extremely sexist and cruel 19th century China. Lily, a poor girl who, by virtue of having feet shaped perfectly for binding and breaking so that can turn into spectacular “golden lilies,” lands a prestigious marriage, community standing and riches while her dear friend, Snow Flower, her “old same” (laotung) — a girl to whom she commits to for life — finds her high-ranking family origins sucked dry into poverty, abuse, addiction and great loss. They communicate with each other mostly through nu shu, a secret language only for women. While the sections on the details of foot binding were so upsetting that my whole family made me skip those tracts, the story itself was compelling in what it showed about the deepest friendships and loves of our lives, and about the need to tell our stories and be heard. The writing itself is a bit simplistic and clumsy in sections, but mostly, this is a marvel to listen to as you roar down I-70.

Housekeeping by Marilynn Robinson — Few things I’ve ever read are infused with such meaning, depth, beauty, and loss as this novel by the author of Gilead about the coming of age of a misfit who, lucky or unlucky for her, is eventually raised by her misfit aunt. With an eye toward the nuances of the sky and nearby glacial lake, and an ear for the most poetic and flowing language this side of Toni Morrison and Ben Okri, Robinson unfurls the family story, shot through with great and uncontrollable losses against the backdrop of a remote and gorgeous landscape. The sense of longing and grief is balanced out by such imagination that hearing this has expanded how I listen to, look at, smell and taste the world around me. The characters are so pervasive that I would wander into truck stop restaurants thinking their thoughts.