2013-11-22 / Community

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The pleasures of audiobooks
By Rachel Davis

I used to hate cleaning the house and doing household chores. There were always plenty of other things I’d rather be doing. Until, that is, I discovered that audiobooks have the power to make mundane tasks actually pleasurable. I plug in my headphones and go, running up the stairs to clean the bathroom down to the basement to throw in the laundry, swap out summer clothes for winter ones. Whatever needs to be done, I am right there having a great time lost in a terrific story.

Audiobooks have come in many formats over the years, and they just keep getting easier and more convenient to listen to. Cumbersome and fragile audiocassettes have been replaced by CDs. And now, alongside regular CDs, you can find MP3 CDs that condense what would otherwise be an unwieldy number of CDs into just one or two – perfect for car travel. You can also download audiobooks directly onto your phone or other portable device.

No matter the format, however, what makes audiobooks so great is not just that you can multitask while listening, it’s the often phenomenally talented voice actors who don’t just read them, but perform them. Now, an unpleasant or inexpert narrator can make an audiobook simply dreadful. But a truly great one, can elevate an audiobook into something cinematic, moving, and marvelous. One of my favorite narrators is the British actor Simon Prebble. I discovered his talents while listening to Michael Stanley’s excellent Detective Kubu mystery series set in Botswana. Prebble not only handles Afrikaans, Tswana and other African accents expertly, he also portrays the Scottish medical examiner, female characters and every other character not just with a different voice tone and accent, but in such a way that you can draw such a clear picture of what each character looks like in your head. Hearing Prebble narrate these books led me to seek out other books he has narrated, which led me in turn to another mystery series set in Africa – this time Ghana – by Kwei Quartey featuring detective Darko Dawson.

Other expert narrators include actor Jim Dale, who won two Grammy awards for his narration of the Harry Potter series, and Tim Curry, who does a remarkable job on the “Chronicles of Narnia.” And speaking of children’s books, Eric Idle from Monty Python fame does an excellent job with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and Jeremy Irons is phenomenal as narrator of “James and the Giant Peach.” One of my all-time favorite audiobooks, however, is Christopher Paul Curtis’ Newbery-wining book “Bud, Not Buddy,” narrated by actor James Avery, who is popularly known as the father/uncle on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-air.” Avery does a masterful job bringing young Bud to life, as well as infusing all of the quirky, rich characters in the story with such authenticity you might feel as if you have met them at some time in your life.

The best male audiobook narrators, like those mentioned above, handle female characters so expertly that you do not feel they are trying to sound like a women. A slight shift in tone, a subtle change in pitch, and there is no mistaking that the character speaking is a woman. By the same token, the best female narrators can portray male characters without seeming forced or silly. Broadway actress Cristin Milioti, who has a recurring role on “How I Met Your Mother,” does a fantastic job with Malie Malloy’s fantasy novel, “The Apothecary.” Although the main character and narrator of the story is a teenage girl, most of the other characters are boys or men, with accents including American, cockney, Russian and Chinese.

Of course, it’s also terrific – sometimes – to hear audiobooks read by the author. I loved listening to Julie Andrews read her own memoir, and Bill Bryson does a great job with comic timing and delivery when narrating his own books. There are some books that are arguably better in audio form than in print because they are narrated by the author – including anything by David Sedaris and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” Stephen King, on the author hand, does not make such a great narrator for his own works, but his books have been performed by some terrific ones, especially “11/22/63,” narrated by Craig Wasson, and his most recent one, “Doctor Sleep,” narrated by Will Patton, both of which lasted through a good many loads of laundry and, in the case of “Doctor Sleep,” helped me thoroughly enjoy raking and bagging leaves last weekend.

So, if you face a long commute every day, wish you had more time to read, or just need a little extra inspiration while doing household chores, you might want to give audiobooks a try. You also might like to check out AudioFile magazine, which happens to be located right here in Maine. You can read reviews and great audiobook recommendations on AudioFile’s website, or just ask your local librarian – we can help you find audiobooks you might like in the format that is most convenient for you. Happy listening!

Rachel Davis is assistant director/children’s librarian at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth.

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