I’ve tried audio books before, but I’ve never been fully converted. I enjoyed listening to Baratunde Thurston read his own frank and funny non-fiction collection, How to Be Black. After that success, I decided maybe non-fiction was the way to go, and attempted to listen to Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist. I’m sure it’s a great book—everything I’ve heard about it tells me it’s insightful, humorous, and makes great points about what it means to be a feminist in our current day and age—but I just couldn’t stick with it. While the essays were certainly interesting, without a narrative thread to pull me through from one chapter to the next the way a novel would, I couldn’t maintain focus. My mind would drift off to other things against my will. I’d be listening along, when suddenly I’d come back to myself and realize I’d been spaced out for three minutes thinking about cheese dip. I abandoned the audio version and vowed to give Roxane Gay another chance in print someday.
This experimentation, while frustrating, has at least served to clarify where the bar is set for me personally when it comes to audio books. If I want to successfully listen to an audio book and retain what I hear, I need a book that can compete with cheese dip and win.
So what kinds of books pass the cheese dip test? For me, fiction with a high level of momentum and humorous, narrative-style non-fiction are winners. I don’t want anything too flowery or literary, because I don’t want to have to back up to make sense of long, complex sentences. And I definitely don’t want anything quiet or subtle plot-wise, because if there are too many lulls in the action, my brain will take a side trip and I’ll end up contemplating what outfit to wear tomorrow instead of following along.
Based on these new insights, I decided to give Girl in Translation a try. The story of a girl and her mother immigrating to America from Hong Kong piqued my interest. I love a good immigrant story—they always inspire me. I was especially intrigued when I read that the main character would be forced to live a double life, attending a prestigious prep school by day and working illegally in a clothing factory by night to make ends meet. I love stories of hardworking people beating the odds and making something of themselves. And when I found out I could download the audio version for free with my state library card, well, that’s the definition of a low-risk, high-reward venture.
Narrator and main character Kimberly Chang is the kind of scrappy underdog I love to rally behind. She and her mother move to Brooklyn with next to nothing, and must work long hours in her aunt’s clothing factory to help repay her for their immigration expenses. The tight bond between mother and daughter sustains them through unimaginably hard times—heating their apartment with the oven, sleeping underneath all the clothes they own because they have no blankets, making crude undergarments by hand because they can’t afford store-bought. Kimberly is highly intelligent and pushes herself to excel, defying everyone’s expectations. But she struggles outside the classroom to figure out which boys are worth her time and which ones aren’t, proving that despite her unusual circumstances, she’s still a girl coming of age in contemporary America.
I’m glad I chose to listen to this book instead of reading it in print. The reader does different voices for each character, which felt cheesy at first (especially when she did thick Chinese accents or lowered her register to sound like a boy), but eventually I lost my self-consciousness and got into it. I actually got to the point where as soon as I heard the voice of Kimberly’s controlling, jealous aunt, I was immediately smoldering with anger at whatever shit the lady was going to pull next.
I think the narration only bothered me at first because in my head, I connect being read to with childhood, and I felt a little silly listening to a reading performance as an adult. I think that’s an attitude I need to let go of. Why should kids get all the fun? I see more audio books in my future.