#FridayListens for 4/17

April 17, 2015 • Top Books

Every Friday, we share which books, audiobooks, and comics have been keeping us company throughout the week. This week: We talk about our favorite new additions from Penguin Random House Audio, including celebrated memoirs from Lena Dunham and Marcus Samuelsson, as well as new fiction from Kazuo Ishiguro and a heartbreaking novel from Gayle Forman.


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Justin: What I love about Ishiguro’s prose is just how deliberately, deceptively calm it can be. Just read these words out loud:

I have no wish to give the impression that this was all there was to the Britain of those days; that at a time when magnificent civilisations flourished elsewhere in the world, we were here not much beyond the Iron Age. Had you been able to roam the countryside at will, you might well have discovered castles containing music, fine food, athletic excellence; or monasteries with inhabitants steeped in learning. But there is no getting around it. Even on a strong horse, in good weather, you could have ridden for days without spotting any castle or monastery looming out of the greenery.

There’s a charmingly formal, almost avuncular quality to these lines, the way the action is suspended in the subjunctive. In Ishiguro’s best novels, the real story takes place just beneath these placid surfaces, where aging butlers and artists reveal more than they mean to about their wartime activities or young clones talk elliptically about the possibility of delaying their “completions.” The pleasure (and occasionally horror) in reading (or in this case, listening to) Ishiguro is in allowing yourself to be carried along by the prose while the tension swells beneath without ever quite breaking the surface.

Though Ishiguro’s style and concerns have remained remarkably constant across his decades-long career, his form has changed with nearly every novel. The Buried Giant brings us to a mythical, post-Arthurian Britain, where ogres and sprites coexist with Britons and Saxons holding a fragile peace after decades of war. Here, two elderly Britons undertake a quixotic journey to visit their son in a nearby village, but quickly find themselves caught up in larger events. The memories (or non-memories) of historical wrongs and personal failures hang in the background, but whether the subject is an entire nation or a single elderly couple, the question is the same: What do we have to forget in order to survive?

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Alex P: Since picking up Lena Dunham’s memoir-esque collection of musings on life and womanhood, I’ve been struck by just how similar Dunham is to her character on Girls. The line between Dunham and her screen personas has always been a bit blurred, but I never realized just how nebulous that distinction really is; from her OCD to her (often exceptionally awkward) sex-life, it’s clear why Girls lands with such authenticity.

What makes Not That Kind of Girl worth reading, though, are the moments when Hannah and Lena diverge. While both display an almost pathological vulnerability and candor, Dunham’s confessions are delivered with a sincerity that’s disarmingly charming: the neuroses that, on Girls, both humanize Hannah and make her more difficult to comprehend are laid bare in Dunham’s writing with a sensitivity and self-awareness lacking in the Girls girls. The self-deprecating lens that’s applied by the show comes through more directly in Dunham’s own voice. It’s all the smart, funny, and astute perceptions you find on Girls—plus, yes, some of the discomforting honesty—without the annoying lack of perspective. Seeing Dunham manage this balancing act gives me a new respect for the sensitivity and insightfulness that goes into creating a character as brash and oblivious as Hannah Horvath.

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Ashley: I knew going in that this book would be sad. It centers around Mia, a 17-year-old in “grave condition” after a car accident that kills her closest family. Mia’s still holding on, still a ghost or a spirit hanging around the hospital, watching her extended family, best friend, and boyfriend grieve and hope and pray that maybe she can hang on. As she wades through the memories she’s made with all of these people, she wavers back and forth between wondering if she should stay with the living, or join her immediate family in death.

The sadness Forman elicits here is a dull ache that intensifies at unexpected moments to take your breath away. It will make you cry, silently, for both the characters and for the people in your own life they’ll remind you of. They’re all so quirky, and yet so relatable—the grandmother who believes in angels despite not being particularly religious, the bandmates of Mia’s father who resist growing old at all costs. The love Mia has for her boyfriend, Adam—so sweet and yet so painfully aware that “seventeen is an inconvenient time to fall in love”—perfectly captures the intensity and heartbreak of high school romances.

If I Stay doesn’t just refer to Mia’s choice to live or die. Before the car crash, Mia had been wondering if she should go to music school across the country, far away from her family and Adam and anyone and anything else she’d come to love. Should she stay for her love of Adam, or go for her love of music? Either way, she won’t stay the same. Because none of us ever stays the same, even if we stay.

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Mallory: Orphaned as a child after his mother died in a tuberculosis epidemic, Marcus Samuelsson was adopted and raised in a place perhaps most antithetical to his native Ethiopia—Sweden. Truly a stranger in a strange land, young Samuelsson found one common thread between his birth home and his adopted home—food—and made it his lifelong passion, taking him from lowly apprentice to multi-James Beard Award-winning chef and culinary celebrity in little more than a decade.

Inspiring and elegantly told, Samuelsson’s story is one of humility, discipline, and drive. For him, “passion”—a term now equally associated with hobbyists as it is with high-achievers—could never just mean love. It means a relentless pursuit of excellence; it’s his way of honoring those who raised him: his courageous birth mother, his generous yet stoic adoptive parents, and his adoptive grandmother, in whose kitchen he found his purpose.

The idea that one can care deeply enough about something to make it their life’s work is a refreshing—and increasingly rare—one these days, as freelancers, contractors, and dilettantes come to comprise more and more of the workforce. For those who want their life to be more than a disparate pastiche of experiences, Samuelsson’s memoir holds many lessons. That doing one thing with integrity far outweighs doing a bunch of things with mediocrity. That excellence is an end in and of itself, not a means to a material end. And that we should actually aspire to work hard, rather than complaining about it or considering it a necessary evil or attempting to avoid it at all costs in favor of something easier, because working hard at what you love can be the most personally fulfilling way of life.