My commute to work is obscenely long. It takes anywhere from an hour on a good day to two when traffic’s really bad, and that’s just one way. Until we can move to a more convenient location, I’ve been finding ways to keep myself entertained on the road. I spend a lot of time on the phone and had a satellite radio installed in my car, but by far my favorite way to pass the time recently has been listening to audiobooks.
I’ve always thought of myself as a visual person and shunned the idea of audiobooks at first. But now I can’t stop listening to them. The one I’m listening to now is so good that I’ve been listening to it at home as well. In case you have a similarly long commute, or you’re gearing up for a road trip, or are just a fan of books looking to experience them a different way, I thought I’d share some of my recent favorites with you, along with publishers’ summaries since I’m a horrible summarizer.
Of course, these recommendations apply to real books as well if you’re not into the audio thing. I download my books from Audible (Amazon’s audiobook company). They have a preferred listener program where you buy credits instead of individual books that has made listening to audiobooks really affordable for me so far.
My #1 must read/listen (seriously, if you read/hear one book this year, make this it): The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first immortal human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years.
If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons – as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bombs effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now, Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henriettas small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her immortality until more than 20 years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family, past and present, is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
©2010 Rebecca Skloot; (P)2010 Random House
Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen
From the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections, a darkly comedic novel about family.
Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul – the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter – environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man – she was doing her small part to build a better world. But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz – outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival – still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?
In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom‘s intensely realized characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.
©2010 Jonathan Franzen (P)2010 Macmillan Audio
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen by Christopher McDougall
Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt?In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.
Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence.
With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a 50-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.
With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons.
Born to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that the secret to happiness is right at your feet, and that you, indeed all of us, were born to run.
©2009 Knopf; (P)2009 Random House
Cutting for Stone: A Novel by Abraham Verghese (this is the one I currently can’t stop listening to)
A sweeping, emotionally riveting first novel – an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home.Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Yet it will be love, not politics – their passion for the same woman – that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him – nearly destroying him – Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.
An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others.
©2009 Abraham Verghese; (P)2009 Random House Audio
Are you an audiobook listener? What are your favorites?