Genre Kryptonite: When Authors Read Audiobooks

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This is a guest post from Todd Strasser, the author of more than 100 books for teens and middle graders including the best-selling Help! I’m Trapped In … series. He has written numerous award-winning YA novels including The Accident, The Wave, Give A Boy A Gun, Boot Camp, If I Grow Up, and Fallout. His mysteries include the YA “Thrillogy”, Wish You Were Dead, Blood on My Hands, and Kill You Last, which was nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America. His most recent novel is No Place.

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When do you realize you’ve been listening to a terrific audiobook in the car? After you’ve missed your exit. Believe me, I know. And you probably do, too. To me, an audiobook in the car is like the J in a PBJ, the powdered sugar on the donut, the mustard on the wiener.  Without it the ride just isn’t the same.

One audio sub-genre that I find particularly delicious are books read by the author. But you have to be careful. As with raw oysters you can sometimes get a bad one. In fact, you might imagine that the publishers of audio books wouldn’t want authors reading their own works, preferring instead professional readers, who are often actors and actresses experienced at bringing drama and a variety of voices to a story. On the other hand, who knows better what’s meant to be humorous, what to emphasize, when to whisper, pause, or shout, than the author himself?

Over time and many miles driven I’ve come across a number of author-read works so enjoyable that I’ve ingested most of them more than once. The tastiest are the ones worth sitting in the car a little longer, even after a long day on the road. On more than one occasion neighbors have scowled when observing me seated and parked on a late afternoon, staring out into space with a smile on my face.

Since I’m a sucker for any reader who sounds even remotely British, I thought I’d start with one of my all-time favorites: Frank McCourt reading his alternatingly harrowing, funny, and immensely touching memoir of childhood,  Angela’s Ashes (I find his Irish brogue and wry wit so enchanting I’d probably enjoy his reading the phone book).

Another great listen is The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. If the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary sounds a bit bland, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by this tasty and fascinating work.

Two by Bill Bryson, an American who’s spent enough time in Great Britain to cultivate a quasi-accent, are the amusing The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid about growing up in Iowa in the 1950s, and the devilish Notes From a Small Country, one of his first volumes, before he toned down his wickedly snide sense of humor and edited out the occasional blasphemy.

Is there a secret quid pro duo between American and British writers? If so, perhaps our side of the pond got Neil Gaiman in return for Bryson. My favorite is his rendition of The Graveyard Book, an intricate jigsaw puzzle of a ghost story unlike any I’ve ever read (or listened to).

Also on this side of the Atlantic is Anne Lamont reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which, despite being a book of advice for writers, is thoroughly enjoyable and funny. I doubt anyone but she could have wrung so many laughs out of her own development as a writer and human being.

Another astonishing book delivered flawlessly by its author is The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’s memoir of growing up in what would certainly be a gold-medal contender at the dysfunctional family Olympics. The story is delivered with strength and integrity, which is remarkable given Ms. Walls’s travails.

For a delicious sampler of debauchery I’d suggest the raucously delivered Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, about his experiences as a cook in various restaurants on the way to becoming a famous chef and TV personality. As Bourdain himself sums it up: “Twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine.”

Then there’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This National-Book Award Winner is a truly heart-wrenching and funny semi-autobiographical story about a young man determined to rise about the trappings of life on an American Indian reservation.

Finally, the only reason I’ve saved David Sedaris for last is that I assume almost everyone already knows what a treat it is to listen to him read his unique and quirky stories. My three favorite volumes are Barrel Fever, Naked, and Me Talk Pretty One Day.

So I hope you’ll enjoy listening to these authors read their books. And please remember, if you see me on some late afternoon, sitting in my car and going nowhere, that doesn’t mean I’m not on some wonderful adventure.

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