My father became an avid “listener” of books at the end of his life as his eyesight gave out. The player and an endless supply of books on tape (in his category of choice) came to him free of charge thanks to an association for the blind in California. It was a lifesaver! My father liked to boast, “I’m a slow reader, but a fast listener.”
I’ve become an avid “listener” of books now as well. I listen to them while exercising, driving in the car, doing chores, and as I’m falling to sleep (see below).
Where to buy audiobooks
I mainly buy my books from Audible.com and listen to them on the Audible app on my iPhone. One nice thing about Audible.com is that you can return a book if you don’t like it, so I’ve become more experimental in my choices. (To return, go to the help menu on their website. It’s easy.) I’ve recently discovered AudioBooks.com and its app, and like it very much, as well.
Falling to sleep to an audiobook
I’ve become fond of listening to an audiobook while falling asleep. (I use a Bluetooth eyemask.) To listen to a book before sleeping, set the app to turn off after a period of time. I usually choose 30 minutes. Ideally, I will fall asleep before it clicks off. Often, the next day, I will backtrack back to a point I remember.
For falling to sleep, it’s important to choose a book that isn’t too dramatic and that has a soothing narration. For me, it’s best to choose books I’m already familiar with.
The most popular audiobook of the year?
No surprise here: it was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale.
My personal top ten audiobooks
All these are great books, but listening to an audiobook edition adds another dimension of pleasure to the experience. Some I end up buying in print as well because I want to savour the book on a sentence-by-sentence level. I also like being able to share a book I adore with friends.
I listened to dozens of audiobooks this year, and it was difficult to cull it down to only 10. Here they are, not in any particular order:
This is my current fave to listen to while falling asleep and the first from AudioBooks.com I’ve ordered. I’ve read the book once in print and once as a Kindle e-book, so it doesn’t matter if I gap out now and then. Macdonald has a wonderful voice.
I adore this memoir about Hay dealing with her ageing parents, and her voice is low and soothing. It’s a good one to fall to sleep to, but you might want to listen to it twice, in order to catch every word. Hay is a wonderful writer.
Becoming, by Michelle Obama, narrated by the author.
Frank, honest and inspiring. This is a good falling-asleep book, but you’ll want to repeat chapters you missed.
I love most any book narrated by the actor Juliet Stevenson; her voice is golden! This is a knock-out historical novel (with just a little fantasy). It’s one of the ones I ended up ordering in print, as well, because I loved it so much.
Another Juliet Stevenson recommendation! Henry James is certainly the last author whose work I would describe as compelling or gripping, but this novel is both. I could finally understand why it’s considered a masterpiece.
The Baroque era in music generally spans 1600 to 1750. Mistress of the Sun and The Shadow Queen fall in what is called the “High Baroque” period (1650-1700), when French music rose to one of the peaks of its own unique expressive style.
Today, the best-known French Baroque composers are Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) and Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764).
Lully, a dancer and violinist born in Italy, became the court composer to Louis XIV in 1661, and a personal friend of the King. For over twenty years, he created the soundtrack underpinning all great occasions during the Sun King’s reign, including church music, operas, ballets, and much, much more.
YouTube has free excerpts of French Baroque music performed by ‘period’ ensembles, or groups that play using instruments and styles similar to those used at the time.
This excerpt of Lully’s brilliant opera Armide (1686), performed by Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie, gives an idea of the beautiful sounds of this period. This excellent group regularly plays and records French Baroque music. Also look out for Le Concert d’Astrée, directed by Emmanuelle Haim, and the work of Le Concert des Nations, directed by Jordi Savall, amongst many others.
Charpentier’s life was not so charmed. Labouring in Lully’s shadow, but arguably of equal talent, Charpentier never succeeded at getting an all-important court appointment but depended largely on the support of the powerful Jesuits. Even after Lully’s death in 1687, groups of Lully’s fans decried Charpentier’s work, insisting it was ‘too Italian’ to be truly French music. This hindered his success in his own lifetime, but his music is extraordinarily beautiful: you can listen to a live performance of a sonata for eight instruments here, played by the orchestra of Les Folies Françoises. Charpentier’s operas, like Médée, and oratorios, like David et Jonathas, are well worth seeking out on CD, but they’re best of all in live performance!
Where Lully was France’s greatest composer of the seventeenth century, Rameau was the giant of the eighteenth: he began his career as a celebrated music theorist and teacher and a composer of keyboard pieces, like the Pièces de clavecins (here played by Blandine Rannou).
Rameau only started writing opera at the age of 50, but they astonished the Parisian community, and immediately caused great conflict with the conservative fans of the sounds of Lully. He still met with great success, and collaborated with many fine authors, including Voltaire, to produce brilliant opera. ‘Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux’ is just one song from his opera Castor et Pollux; the video contains French and English subtitles, as well as glimpses of the musical manuscript and stills from the 2006 film “Marie Antoinette.”
You might also enjoy …
Although not necessarily a perfect historical or geographical fit, I enjoy the following YouTube links for background listening. (You might notice that they have a somewhat different sound from the examples above. Most of these are played on what we think of as modern instruments, whereas the examples above are played on “period” instruments, and are, therefore, closer to the original sound.)
The Best of Baroque: with renowned harpsichordist Ed Clark, violinist Brunilda Myftaraj and cellist Kathy Schiano.
“For most of us, who never mastered the intricacies of French history in high school, or never studied it at all, this richly detailed portrait of life in the French court under the rule of Louis XIV will thrust us into an absorbing world, described by an extraordinarily talented writer. It is such an outstanding example of historical fiction that it may open up other alluring worlds to readers who have never ventured into the genre before.
“Every year, the Writers’ Conference hosts the Big Read, inviting everyone in town to read the same book by one of the Conference keynote speakers and then to join one of many Big Read discussion groups around town. We provide discussion questions, present a program to provide background information on the book and the author, and invite all discussion group participants to meet the author in person at a private reception.”
On January 14 there will be an event held to present the novel to book clubs. I’m not able to be there (we will be on the Pacific Coast at that time), but I’m working with the organizing committee to help put together an entertaining presentation.
The first thing I suggested was that they serve beignets, a French pastry featured throughout the novel. That turned out to be fairly easy to arrange since San Miguel is blessed with an excellent French pastry chef.
The second thing I suggested was that we recruit my actor friends Rick Davy and Marilyn Buillivant — of Literary Cabaret fame — to put on a short, dramatized reading from the novel. They are keen, and it’s going to be wonderful, but I have since discovered that scripting scenes is not easy!
The committee has also arranged for a filmmaker, Dennis Lanson, to make a short film to show at the event. It will likely partially be an interview of me about the novel — my process and how The Shadow Queen came to be, etc. — and partially images of 17th century theatre and some of the characters in the novel, along with my voice-over commentary. This has entailed a search for images that are of good-enough quality to be projected onto a large screen. Again: not easy!
In going though old blog posts and selecting images, I’ve begun to fall under the spell of that era again. For example, OTT Baroque theatre:
How is it possible not to swoon?
I love, too, this image of Madame de Montespan, the woman we all love to hate:
In order to do all this coherently, I’ve been rereading The Shadow Queen. It has been years since I was in that world, and I have to confess that I’m finding it delightful.
JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, fifty-five years ago today. I was nineteen and in university. I don’t remember the moment I learned — How is that possible? — but the images and the shock of it are indelible in my memory.
I have since read a moving biographical historical novel, titled, simply, Nov 22, 1963, by Adam Braver.
The assassination was made all the more horrifying in learning in this novel that JFK and Jackie had recently suffered the death of a baby. This tragic trip to Texas with her husband was Jackie’s brave first public event.
A Berkeley childhood
I grew up in Berkeley, California. Air raid siren drills were common; there was always the fear of annihilation. At Girl Scout camp, I remember a cloudy day being attributed to the test of a nuclear bomb in near-by Nevada. I was assigned to write stories about our last day alive in Grade School.
My high school years in Berkeley were vivid with protest. I was a proud member of Students for a Democratic Society. In English, I sat next to Tracy Simms, who led the very first sit-in against a hotel in San Francisco that did not hire Blacks.
These were intense years, rich with both excitement and fear. The Whole Earth Catalogue was Google in print. It’s message was: “You can do anything, go anywhere. Here are the tools.” It was a powerful concept, and an entire generation took it to heart.
Although I don’t remember the moment I learned of Kennedy’s assassination, I remember, vividly, the night of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, two-a-half years before. I was seventeen, living in San Francisco with roommates in the Castro district, going to San Francisco State. We believed that it could be the end of the world, our last night alive. (In fact, recent scholarship shows how very close it came to being just that, by an accident of communication.) I imagine that there was a surge in births nine months later, for many young couples succumbed. Why wait?
The three assassinations
On April 4, 1968, four-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was twenty-one, married and working in a factory in Belmont, California — a factory that provided micro-chips for fighter jets. I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to work there. I remember the Ohio Flute Society (or something similar) being listed as one of the suspicious organizations.
I couldn’t sleep the night of April 4. I got up and went downstairs. It was very late. I turned on the TV: screams, a newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images. King had been shot.
The next morning, at the factory, a white guy riding a trolley yelled, fist raised, “We got another one!”
And then, only two months later, on June 6, the same thing. I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and turned on the TV. A newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images, screams. Bobby Kennedy had been shot.
I’d been canvassing for him, handing out leaflets — it was my first involvement in a political campaign. Belmont was a conservative town, yet the day after Bobby Kennedy’s death there was, I was told, a rash of suicides.
That morning, the morning after, my then husband and I went to Half Moon Bay. Sitting on a sand dune overlooking the Pacific, stunned by the news, I said I wanted to move. Away. To another country. Bobby Kennedy’s death was the straw that broke my back.
And thus the decision was made to leave my country of birth for a more peaceful realm. Move to Canada — a “healing” country in the words of the wonderful Carol Shields, who had herself immigrated to Canada from the US. I found it to be just that.
A Canadian citizen now, I have never regretted that move. Even so, a part of me will always be American. A part of me will always love that country — love it, and fear for it. Which is one reason I, like so many others, am addicted to the horrifying daily news.
Are things worse now than they were during those violent and tumultuous years? I would say yes, although in a more institutional way. I believe in democracy, and greatly fear for it.
The two reviews I read of Helen Humphreys newest publication, Machine Without Horses, were somewhat negative, claiming that the combination of memoir and fiction simply do not work. Humphreys is one of my favorite writers. She never fails to please, and so I was curious.
I’ve just now finished it and I beg to differ. I found this to be an innovative and inspiring work.
Machine Without Horses is billed as a novel: therein, I think, lies the problem. The first half of this “novel” is a memoir of the author researching and thinking through how to write about her subject, Megan Boyd, a famous fishing fly maker from Scotland.
I particularly love the author’s thoughts on writing. Coming from Humphreys, these are gold. Here are some examples of her thoughts on character development:
The beginning of a life is often the start of the story. Character is formed from the early incidents and accidents, from sudden trauma, or reassuring constancy. These are more important than aspects of personality because they are the ground on which the inherent nature of the person blossoms or is stifled. (Page 7)
I particularly like this because it jives with my current thoughts on character development. (See my thoughts regarding the book Story Genius.)
When I set about making a story, one of the first things I think about is the motivation of the main character. What is it that they want? What are they driven by? Story is created from combining a character’s motivation with their circumstances. (Page 16)
In this section of Machine Without Horses, the author is taking lessons on making fishing flies.
“Anything will help,” I confess.”I’m trying to work my way inside her mind before I write about her.”(page 24)
Her teacher Paul asks, “How do you get inside someone’s head to write about them? Especially someone who was a real person?”
This is the sixty-million-dollar question, and one that I don’t really have a definitive answer for because I’m constantly shifting my thinking about how to accomplish this kind of transference. It is hard enough to be oneself. How can we effectively become someone else? (pages 26/27)
This quote pertains especially to writing biographical fiction:
The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader. (page 33)
I especially love this passage:
A writer must slowly build a story and characters, as though they were making a machine, with each part intersecting snugly, each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next. You must lean the way they lean, have the understanding they have, never step outside the limits you have determined for them. You cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn’t, and perhaps that’s why we read it, and also why I write. (pages 89/90)
Throughout this section, there are now and again descriptions that echo fly fishing, i.e. “each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next.”
Starting a novel is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning. This means that the other life of the writer, the “real life,” has to fade into the background ground for a while. (Page 11–12)
Not exactly like being in love, however:
When I’m working on a book, I just wear the same clothes day after day, eat the same food with no variation. Novel–writing and depression have a great deal in common, as it turns out. (page 41)
This is a spare book, only 267 pages, and this section on Humphreys preparing to write about her subject accounts for more than half of it. The last 120 pages is the work itself, a beautifully spare biographical novella about Helen Boyd.
Today, November 16, is World Falconry Day. This year the theme is specifically on female falconers, historically and currently. This is significant because traditionally falconry has been a male realm.
I’m in the research stage of writing a Young Adult novel about a young woman falconer in Elizabethan England, so naturally this caught my eye.
If you haven’t watched the award-winning documentary The Eagle Huntress, do! It’s amazing.
This video, too, is also about women practicing falconry with eagles:
The women talk about how hard it was at first. I’d like to know: Hard in what ways?