Surviving the Holiday with Stories–Audios for Adults

(This piece was published in the Chapel Hill Herald, December 28th, 2013 and I thought I’d share it with a “coda” at the ending.) My childhood holiday memories are a collision — gifts spreading across the living room floor, an alcohol-inspired parental fight, my mother playing Christmas carols on the piano, scarfing one too many of those powdered-sugar nut balls. Honestly, I’m now crazed by the traditions I’ve imposed on my present. Thankfully they start with seasonal salvation when I host my wonderful book club for an evening of food, drink and a book-centered gift swap. I get more than I receive as they come bearing lush poinsettias, extra wine to last the season and best of all, book suggestions. Why best of all? I base my holiday listening on the recommendations that help me avoid the Ghost of Christmas Present. The only negative of this party is making my house semi-presentable. This year, I shoved layers of clutter into closets and squirreled away oodles of books while listening to Jo Baker’s Longbourn, read by Emma Fielding (Random House, 11 CDs, 13.5 hours).

The author begins by establishing place, person, style and tone through a simple situation. Good writing, not the similar situation, pulled me into Sarah’s narrative. As a maid, her washing day starts at 4:30 a.m. and though her chilblains are already hurting she dreams of faraway places “as the sky over the hills is fading to a transparent indigo.” She imagines Native Americans wearing few clothes and therefore there is little laundry.  “No one should have to deal with another person’s dirty linen,” she says and then reveals a truth only the Bennet servants know. The five young ladies for whom she toils “might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues” but underneath their clothes, they are “frail, leaking, bodily creatures.” The “Downton Abbey” downstairs meeting “Pride and Prejudice” might not work without the author’s strong-minded heroine, her complicated hero, their epoch-evocative love story, intriguing minor characters and subplots and lyrical writing. Emma Fielding’s crisp British syllables and emotion-filled perspectives took my mind off toilets and kitchens that needed scrubbing, her invitation to enter the servants’ world in the Longbourn home were that inviting. I used to make plates and plates of various Christmas cookies for friends, but for every one on a plate, another jumped into my mouth. My solution was to make batches of biscotti. This hard cookie demands a little more consciousness when it comes to sampling. Every year I open up my “biscotti factory” cooking and coating massive numbers of them.

Biscotti Factory

Because of my bookclub’s suggestion, I survived the 12-plus hours with the help of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, (Penguin Audio, approximately 16 hours).

Meg Wolitzer - The Interestings

The book begins with the viewpoint character Julie Jacobson who feels she’s, an “outsider and possibly even a freak.” To her amazement, she’s invited into an inner group of artsy privileged teens at a creative-arts summer camp in the Berkshires. Julie is reborn as Jules as a group of teens — steeped in irony, drinks and joints — dubs themselves “The Interestings”  “because,” as one of the boys says, “we are clearly the most interesting people who ever … lived.” Wolitzer clearly has been a camper, knows the 1974 world she describes, remembers being a teen, and describes the vulnerable feelings of an outsider accurately. The book speeds along from that blissful summer of 1974 to 2012 when the five characters “all found themselves shocked and sad to be grown into their thicker, finalized adult selves with almost no chance for reinvention.” Each character’s trajectory is believable as book traces their sometimes surprising outcomes in marriage and parenting, through disappointments and successes. Jules gives up acting, envies the success of cartooning Ethan and her best camp friend, Ash, who marries him. She becomes a therapist, questions her marriage, and tries to find herself again and again. The story’s pacing is quick and ironic as the opening promises, as the five adjust to each era, all of these studded with meaningful icons. Jen Tullock reads the wealth of prurient details with alacrity and precision and still manages to imbue the author’s words with emotions, portray each character with distinction, and keep listeners up with the shifting time periods.

I’m finishing my year with Donna Tartt’sThe Goldfinch ,read by David Pittu (Hachette, 26CDs, 32.5 hours), an audio with intensity that balances mundane shopping. It begins with tragedy striking 13-year-old Theo Decker who survives an accident that kills his mother. Theo’s longing for her and their past life is more understandable in view of the many unlikable adults in the book. While Theo has no self-pity, I find myself horrified by the life circumstances to which he has to adjust. Though some of the phrases and references seem mature, David Pittu’s portrait makes Theo seem genuinely adolescent. The other day, midway through, I ran into a neighbor who recently read “The Goldfinch.”  “Call me when you finish it?” she requested. The more I read, the more I wonder about her comment and the book’s outcome, and I feel her same need for discussion. Still, it’s energizing me through my more boring traditions and that is a gift!

****** Spoiler alert coming at you in this coda******

When I finished 32 hours and 30 minutes of listening, I wonder why I finished.  The characters (including the protagonist) never grew more likeable, and excepting Hobie, who’s portrayed with the depth he deserves.  Hobie is Theo’s mentor, a furniture restorer who introduces Theo to the pleasures of working with wood and stains.  Hobie is a man who could serve as a strong moral compass, but Theo can’t seem to find directions that work for him. Perhaps he is too damaged, perhaps too guarded by the violence that erupts around him continually.  Is something that occurs at a tender age of becoming ever surmountable? In Theo’s case, he  witnesses terrorism first hand, is undone by his mother death and is hurled into survival mode at age 13, ever to be undone? Perhaps that’s why I kept listening.  I longed for redemption, for an ending that would balance the hours of ugliness I’d heard.  That is not to happen.  Instead the ending is a rambling babble of philosophy and I cared little. So listeners beware! If you, like me and my neighbor feel the need of a discussion to untangle your emotions, consider quitting. If someone feels differently, I’m still looking for comments that can turn my opinion around!

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