Audiobook Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers
by
Malcolm Gladwell

Rating: 5 out of 5.

How do we make sense of people we don’t know? We might think we can read the strangers we meet, but sometimes we get it wrong. Using examples from history and the news, Malcolm Gladwell shows how and why we make these mistakes.

The book begins with the Sandra Bland case. In 2015, Bland, a young African American woman, was stopped by a police officer in Texas for a traffic violation. Based on his preliminary interaction, the officer feared an aggressive confrontation. The situation quickly got out of hand. Bland was arrested and jailed and three days later, she committed suicide in her jail cell.

Before World War II, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was sure he could accurately read Adolf Hitler, so he scheduled a series of face-to-face meetings. Afterwards, Chamberlain told the world that Hitler would not invade Europe, because Hitler had given his word and had even signed a paper saying so. Fidel Castro fooled the CIA and flipped many American agents during the 1980s, much to the shock of the United States. Bernie Madoff duped investors out of $64.8 billion in the largest Ponzi scheme in history. How could these things happen?

One of the reasons (not the Sandra Bland case, that’s more a case of a tragic misreading) is that human beings are wired to default to truth: most of us want to believe. We wouldn’t be able to function as a society if we thought everyone was lying. And most of the time, the strangers we meet do tell the truth. Psychologist Tim Levine, who has conducted comprehensive studies of human behavior, explains why. “What we get in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie is efficient communication and social coordination,” says Levine. In other words, “the cost of doing business.”

We’re also conditioned to believe facial expressions. Smiles mean happy, frowns mean mad, furtive eyes mean lying, etc. That doesn’t always work. And sometimes the undetected lies are at great cost. Gladwell looks at how former Penn State football coach and convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky fooled school administrators and the public. And why Larry Nassar, team physician of the USA Gymnastics women’s national team, abused girls and women for years before he was convicted.

But what about the Amanda Knox case? Knox, an exchange student in Italy, was convicted of murdering her roommate in 2007. She spent nearly four years in an Italian prison before courts overturned her conviction. Why was she convicted? Because, despite a complete lack of evidence, she didn’t behave the way we believed someone in her situation should have behaved. She wasn’t serious enough and so the courts, and the tabloids, thought she was lying.

On college campuses, young people also struggle to understand the strangers they meet at parties, particularly when alcohol mixes into their interactions. Gladwell looks at consent as it applies to the 2015 sexual assault case against Stanford University freshman Brock Turner.

And in a fascinating look at depression and suicide, Gladwell explains the theory of coupling, the idea that certain settings and circumstances, lead to situations, including suicide, that otherwise would not occur. How does this connect to the other examples? We may misread others because we don’t understand the coupling circumstances.

This book was fascinating. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gladwell, and supplemented with the print version. The audiobook was produced to resemble a podcast, using actual interviews from the cases cited. Gladwell does a great job explaining each case, the theories and tying up the examples. I’m sure I will read more books by Gladwell and highly recommend Talking to Strangers.

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Audiobook review: The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night Swim
by
Megan Goldin
Narrated by Bailey Carr, January LaVoy

and Samantha Desz

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Podcaster Rachel Krall is ready to immerse herself in the next season of Guilty or Not Guilty when she arrives in the coastal town of Neapolis, North Carolina. Season 3 will cover the rape and sexual assault case against Scott Blair, a champion swimmer and son of a local prominent businessman. Scott’s accuser, Kelly Moore, has been devastated by her assault and the trial’s lead-up, but the burden of proof will be on her and District Attorney Mitch Alkins. Scott’s lawyer is the successful Dale Quinn, a local who moved away but returned to Neapolis to take on the case.

At a rest stop outside the town, Rachel notices a note on her windshield. It’s from Hannah Stills, the sister of a girl who died in Neapolis under suspicious circumstances twenty-five years earlier. Hannah begs Rachel to investigate her sister, Jenny’s death, which she says was murder. Jenny’s death went largely unnoticed while families mourned the death of two well-known teenage boys in a fiery car crash that summer.

In alternating chapters and through Rachel’s podcast, readers learn the details of both cases and will soon wonder if there’s a connection between the crimes. Hannah’s story unfolds in a series of letters to Rachel. When court is not in session, Rachel chases after leads in Jenny’s death, hoping to eventually meet Hannah, who mysteriously avoids a face-to-face.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is the town and its characters’ interconnectedness over several generations. I enjoyed figuring out, through various hints, what the dynamics were between these characters. In addition, the author does a good job covering the different angles of consent, sexual assault and rape, showing the effects of these charges on both families.

I also thought the narrators did an excellent job in telling the story and felt that the podcast element was especially good in audiobook format.

Unfortunately other parts of the book were just not as enjoyable to me. Though it might seem small, I had trouble with the town’s name which doesn’t seem to fit with the names of other American east coast towns. In addition, most of Goldin’s characters, especially Rachel, are one-dimensional. I was also annoyed with how easy it was for Rachel, who is not a police investigator, to get information about Jenny’s death. She went around town and interviewed locals and conveniently connected with people and officials who were around when Jenny died. Although I don’t really care, her portrayal of librarians as unhelpful clock-watchers is not how it is! And, despite producing a podcast, she had time to do all this. I wouldn’t describe The Night Swim as much of a thriller. It moves much slower and a great deal of the book deals with courtroom testimony.

So all-in-all, an interesting, but not very deep read, bringing attention to the important subject of sexual assault and rape.

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Audiobook review: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn, read by Ann Marie Lee

The Woman
in the Window
by
A. J. Finn

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Here’s a quick audiobook review of The Woman by the Window by A. J. Finn, read by Ann Marie Lee. This is a suspenseful psychological thriller set in New York about a woman who has suffered an unexplained tragedy and now lives apart from her husband and young daughter. An agoraphobic, she hasn’t left her house in nearly a year. Instead, she watches old Hitchcock movies, drinks wine, self-medicates and spies on her neighbors through the zoom lens of a powerful camera. One day, she sees something terrible through the window of a new family’s home. When she tries to report it, no one believes her and she begins to wonder if she imagined it. Her increasingly frantic, and unreliable narrative places the reader (and listener) in the mind of an unraveling trained psychologist who can’t treat herself properly.

Through interactions with her family, psychiatrist, online chess players, fellow agoraphobes, her physical therapist, neighbors and the man who rents her basement apartment, Dr. Anna Fox’s back story comes into focus. But while the details of her story may become clear, what isn’t clear is whether she saw what she thought she saw. Readers may want to believe her because she describes the details so vividly, but there’s a lot else going on with the neighbors and her tenant to cause suspicion. As Fox continues to drink recklessly and down her medications in fistfuls, Finn propels Fox towards a tense showdown between her own demons and others.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Woman in the Window. Ann Marie Lee is a fantastic narrator of this excellent story. She effectively portrays a wide variety of characters, scenes and emotions and I was gripped throughout. One particularly emotional scene towards the end is especially convincing. I also like how Finn ties the old movies she watches into the plot, particularly Rear Window and Vertigo.

The unreleased 2020 film of The Woman in the Window is directed by Joe Wright and stars Amy Adams and Gary Oldman. It’s scheduled to be released on Netflix in 2021. Read more about the film here and here. I’m looking forward to watching it!

I recommend The Woman in the Window to readers and listeners who like psychological thrillers, though I wouldn’t recommend listening while you’re driving – it’s that engrossing!

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Audiobook review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova, narrated by the author

Still Alice
by
Lisa Genova

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I recently listened to Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a fictional account of a woman who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The story begins with Alice Howland at the peak of her career. At fifty years old, she’s a renowned professor of psycholinguistics at Harvard University. She and her husband, John, a professor of biology, have spent their careers researching and teaching at Harvard. Despite some slight tension in their marriage over John’s lab schedule and a daughter who has skipped college to become an actress, everything is pretty good in the Howland family and with their two other adult children.

But then Alice starts forgetting things and gets lost after a jog, just minutes from her home. And worse lapses follow.

Alice and her family are stunned by the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The book looks at the disease from Alice’s point of view and chronicles her inevitable decline. Genova also shows how the family reacts. John’s denial and then his aggressive search for the best medicines and trials are a reflection of his scientific mind. Because her strain of the disease is genetic, their adult children grapple with the news and results of their own testing. The Howlands rally around Alice, but they also take inward paths. John is sometimes supportive and other times he escapes into his career. Their children are just beginning their adult lives, a period that’s meant for them, not a sick parent. Genova presents an interesting dynamic between the siblings and their parents and shows how they step up, and back, in different ways.

Alice copes in surprising ways. Her brilliant mind has enabled her to use creative work-arounds, a strategy that has likely covered up her disease before she was diagnosed. She offers surprising insight as she devises a private plan to measure and face her decline.

Genova outlines this heartbreaking scenario with detailed scientific explanations and provides many resources for patients and families who suffer with Alzheimer’s.

While I found the story compelling and important, I was disappointed in its telling. Genova presents her story awkwardly. It’s a third-person look into Alice’s mind, using a lot of plain dialogue and coupled with long and scientific explanations of the disease, reading more like an informational pamphlet than a novel. I wanted to learn more about the Howlands and felt these characters could have been better developed, a missed chance that could have made the story great. I was also sorry to have chosen the audiobook version. Genova’s narration was plain with little inflection, making the characters all sound the same. A professional narrator would have made a huge difference.

Still Alice was adapted to film in 2014 and stars Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parish. It was directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. The film won many awards and Moore won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.

All-in-all, I’d recommend Still Alice to readers who want to know more about how Alzheimer’s affects its patients and their families, but I’d steer you to the print version.

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Audiobook review: Inside Out by Demi Moore

Inside Out
by
Demi Moore

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When you’re a celebrity, your image is a product of the media and what you want to share about yourself, and those things are often at odds. I recently listened to Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out to find out more about an actress who was very present in the entertainment world beginning in the 1980s. I knew all about her movies, including St Elmo’s Fire and A Few Good Men and of course her famous marriages to Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher. But I didn’t know much about her childhood and how she became an actress.

It turns out Demi Moore had a pretty bad childhood. Her father was an alcoholic and her parents fought constantly, and they moved a lot, to get away from creditors. This unstable childhood forced Moore to live her life in survival mode, a mode she carried with her into her adult life.

Unfortunately, her confidence was only on the surface, but it was so believable that it led people to think that she could handle tough situations. Underneath, she desperately needed taking care of. Because of her father’s alcoholism, she was determined to avoid the devastating effects of addiction, but she could not and her memoir covers these years with honesty. She openly discusses her relationship with alcohol and later other drugs, and how these dependencies nearly wrecked her relationship with her family.

Having a mother who wanted to be in the limelight as much as Moore was also difficult and they had a tumultuous relationship because of it. In the end, Moore found a way to forgive her mother and love her.

I enjoyed listening to Moore’s memoir, which she narrates and which makes much of her story relatable. I also liked hearing about her marriage to Bruce Willis and give them credit for keeping their split amicable. But it’s also the point in the memoir where Moore seems to make a lot of bad decisions. She talks about her marriage to Ashton Kutcher who was only twenty-five when they met and fifteen years younger than Moore. There’s a lot of bitterness in that story.

There seems to be a shift in the later part of Moore’s tone as she talks about the years when her daughters refused to speak to her. By then, Moore was in her fifties, still drinking and using drugs and readers and listeners might think it was about time she held herself accountable.

But in the end, the point is that all anyone wants is to be happy so I was glad to hear that she was able to pull herself out of the mess even though you can’t help but think she made much of it herself in the later years.

Inside Out is a very fast listen. It’s not full of substance, but it’s intelligently told and I’d recommend it to readers/listeners who like celebrity memoirs.

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Audiobook review: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty narrated by Caroline Lee

Nine Perfect Strangers
by
Liane Moriarty

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Here’s a very different story about nine people who sign up for a ten-day cleanse at Tranquillum House, a pricey boutique health and wellness resort in Australia. Its guests expect mindful eating, meditation and a break from their bad habits, unhealthy lifestyles and failures. Some of the guests just want to lose weight or cut back on alcohol, one couple wants to work on their marriage, and others have more specific issues. The director promises a complete transformation.

“Right now you’re at the foot of a mountain and the summit seems impossibly far away, but I am here to help you reach that summit. In ten days, you will not be the person you are now,” promises Masha, Tranquillum House’s director.

“You will leave Tranquillum House feeling happier, healthier, lighter, freer,” she continues.

The attendees are indeed strangers, but as expected, they will soon learn a great deal about each other. Frances Welty is a successful romance novelist, but she’s been burned in a relationship and she may be losing her touch as a writer. Ben and Jessica are a young couple whose lives should be great after winning the lottery, but their marriage is in big trouble. Napoleon, Heather and Zoe Marconi are there to brace the third anniversary of Zoe’s brother’s death. Tony Hogburn, a former football star, is divorced and out of shape. Carmel Schneider is a single mother of four young girls, whose husband left her for someone new. And Lars Lee is a handsome divorce lawyer struggling with relationship problems.

The cleanse includes the expected smoothies, fasting, massages and meditation. Masha and her assistants Yao and Delilah also impose an unexpected “noble silence” which forbids talking and eye contact with each other. And there’s more to come.

Frances knows that some of the practices at Tranquillum House are unconventional. Her massage therapist warned her and said, “Just don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.” But other than fasting and silence, which is pretty uncomfortable, Frances feels pretty good. And so do others. They have all put their trust in Masha, mostly.

Here’s where the story gets interesting because Masha isn’t an ordinary health resort director. She’s a Russian immigrant who’s undergone her own major transformation. Once an aggressive corporate star, she didn’t take care of herself and nearly died. Her eventual awakening motivated her to reinvent herself and  teach others how to do the same.

What comes next for the guests is indeed unconventional.

I downloaded Nine Perfect Strangers on a whim, looking for something to listen to while I walked. I’d listened to Truly Madly Guilty a couple years ago and liked it. And I read What Alice Forgot in 2014 and enjoyed that story too.

Nine Perfect Strangers is described as a mystery, suspense and thriller and that is basically true. But it’s a bigger story about flawed people who change in some ways, but also embrace who they are. I enjoyed listening to this story and the narrator does a great job with the voices. I think the audio version is all the better because of her portrayal of Masha, who to me is the most interesting character in the story. I recommend Nine Perfect Strangers to readers (and listeners) who like a good, long story about relationships, overcoming grief and personal and family crises.

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Audiobook Review: The River by Peter Heller

The River
by
Peter Heller

Rating:

Wynn and Jack have been best friends ever since they met during freshman orientation at Dartmouth. They’re from different parts of the country: Wynn from Vermont and Jack from a Colorado ranch. But they bonded over their mutual love and deep respect for the outdoors and have taken many trips together. Now, with time off from college, they embark on a wildnerness canoe trip up the Maskwa River in northern Canada. Months in the planning, they are fit and able, and totally prepared, maybe.

A wildfire in the distance has them worried. Still, they keep paddling through the lakes leading to the river, hoping for the best. Once they enter the river, there will be no turning back. When they hear a man and a woman arguing on a nearby island, they decide to warn the couple about the fire. Strangely, when they land, the couple is nowhere to be found.

Later, a man appears, alone, injured and dazed. Is this the man they heard? Where is the woman? Something isn’t right and their careful plans are no good. The only sure thing now is the approaching fire and the swift river current.

I enjoyed listening to this descriptive and atmospheric thriller, read by Mark Deakins. Deakins has a deep voice that enhances the drama and tension of the story. Heller includes the friends’ important backstories which play well into the plot. Wynn, an art major, has an optimistic and trusting nature. Jack is more suspicious and more quick-tempered. But the two have always complemented each other and assume different roles. Neither is ready for what’s ahead, however, and an interesting dynamic develops between them as the tension builds.

I love stories where nature is a dominant force and The River is a good example of this. Heller’s descriptions make it easy to picture the lakes and river and are at times poetic. That makes sense because Heller is also an award-winning nature writer and author of literary nonfiction. (Read more about Heller here.) That said, I thought that the abundance of description bogged down the story a bit. There’s a lot of discussion of gear and different brands, fly fishing lures, and repeated references to filtered squeeze bottles, gathering berries, and wishing they had thought to bring salt. I enjoyed that part at first, but felt it got in the way later.

I always naively think rivers run south but the river they’re on runs north. That got me wanting to picture their route. A little research led me to this link which explains that the Maskwa River of the novel is actually the Winisk River and that Heller based the Cree village of Wapahk on the village of Peawanuck. You can learn more about this here at knopfdoubleday.com.

The River is a fast listen, at just seven hours. I listened to it during my walks and was totally engrossed.

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On audiobooks and coloring

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the things I like to do while I’m listening to an audiobook is color. I’m no artist, but I enjoy coloring pages and hearing a good story. Very relaxing!

Today I’m sharing links to free coloring pages for adults and some audiobooks I recommend.

Art Is Fun

Crayola

Just Color


Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes


Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

What If? by Randall Munroe


Many thanks to my friend J. for giving me this idea yesterday!

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Audiobook Review: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

Hidden Bodies
by
Caroline Kepnes

Narrated by Santino Fontana

Rating:

I just finished listening to Hidden Bodies, the sequel to You by Caroline Kepnes (read my review of You here). It’s the continuation of Joe Goldberg’s twisted serial-killing narration as he leaves the New York bookstore he manages and heads out to Los Angeles. Joe is on a revenge search for the new girl in his life, Amy who has taken off with rare books from the bookstore.

As is expected, Joe is full of sarcasm with a huge chip on his shoulder. But in some ways, he’s like everyone else, searching for love. The problem is, he just can’t let things go. In addition, Joe still has problems on the East coast. His biggest mistake is the DNA he left at Peach Salinger’s family mansion. In addition, the wrongly convicted therapist in jail for killing Beck has a team working on a reversal and cops are sniffing around.

Out in California, Joe gets mixed up in several situations, and the killing continues, but then he meets Love Quinn and falls in love. But Love’s twin, Forty is a big problem. He’s a wannabe script writer and drug addict with a sharp instinct for taking advantage.

Joe’s life on the West coast is a running commentary on the shallowness of the place and the stupidity of everyone he meets. His disdain for consumer culture, social media and false conversations contributes to the pent-up anger that propels him into murder. Joe’s intense rants are what makes this story so appealing. Yes, he’s a serial killer, but he has a point. And, buried deep in Joe’s anger is a someone soft and, can I say lovable? Well not in real life, but in a story, yes.

I especially enjoyed listening to Hidden Bodies because the narrator, Santino Fontana, is fantastic as Joe. Fontana also narrates You, but I read the print copy, so hadn’t experienced how much he nails Joe’s personality. Having the story in your ears like that is an intense listen. I don’t think Hidden Bodies is quite as good as You. Sequels are always hard. And if you’re thinking of reading or listening to it, be warned, it’s what I call a little racy! But I recommend both You and Hidden Bodies for readers who like twisted stories about complicated characters.

If you’d like to read more about Hidden Bodies, check out these other bloggers’ reviews.

GritLitGirls Book Review Nook
Reens Reads and Writes
What Jess Reads

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Audiobook Review: The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room
by
Chris Bohjalian

Rating:

Kristin Chapman has agreed to let her husband, Richard host a bachelor party for his younger brother, Philip. She’s sure there will be hired entertainment, but she trusts Richard, even though Philip and his friends are a bit on the wild side. After all, Richard and Kristin are settled, in the prime of their lives and enjoying the comforts of wealth and success. Philip is a managing partner of a New York investment banking firm, Kristin is a respected high school teacher and they live with their young daughter in an upscale neighborhood in Westchester.

But wild is not the word. Before long, the burly and intimidating bodyguards who accompanied the “dancers” are dead and the girls, Sonja and Alexandra, have fled the house, leaving Richard, Philip and the rest of the guys in a wrecked house with the two dead men.

When morning comes, Richard begins to grasp how much trouble he’s in. Shame and horror fill him when Kristin learns of her husband’s transgressions and their young daughter is exposed to a sordid and dangerous world.

The repercussions of these events are endless. The story explodes on the internet, news reporters hound him and friends keep their distance. Richard is put on leave at work, Kristin shuns him and their daughter worries her parents will divorce. And it’s soon revealed that the Russian girls, possibly underage, had been kidnapped and were brought to New York as sex workers. Richard also faces lawsuits and a blackmail scheme, but the worst is the damage to his family. Or maybe the worst is that Richard is haunted by his encounter with Alexandra.

As detectives chase down the Russians behind the girls’ kidnappers, as well as the girls, Richard, now understands Alexandra and Sonja’s situation, tries to do what’s right and fix his marriage, leading to the inevitable confrontation between the story’s players. Throughout the story, both Richard and Kristin, whose voice is strong in the story, struggle with their decisions as they face their losses.

I enjoyed the audiobook version of The Guest Room, narrated by Grace Experience and Mozhan Marno, who switch between Alexandra’s story and the third person voices in the alternate chapters. I was especially drawn into the story by Experience, the voice of Alexandra. Through the author’s story and Experience’s voice, the audiobook provides a sobering look into brutal sex trafficking crimes. Marno has great range and deftly manages the other characters’ personalities, with subtle changes in her voice. Through both voices, I felt I knew the characters well.

I also enjoyed the author’s smart descriptions of the Chapman’s home and their lives. The fact that many of their things are ruined is a great reflection on how their lives may also be wrecked. Bohjalian is also great at presenting different points of view and showing his characters’ weaknesses. I felt the dread of each of the characters, even the ones I didn’t like.

I listened to The Guest Room during my many walks this week and recommend it to listeners who like stories with characters who make bad decisions.

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