Tag Archives: audiobooks

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I Don’t Remember

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I don’t remember(2015, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, audio book read by Jack Hawkins, Bolinda 2016)

I’d pretty much given up on audio books (see here and here), but the Emerging Artist is less prone to burning bridges than I am, and she borrowed two from the library for a longish drive on the weekend. We listened to Everything I Don’t Remember, all seven hours of it, and I’m once again open to the medium.

A young man named Samuel has died in a car crash, probably deliberately, and a writer is interviewing people who were close to him to find out how they make sense of his death. It settles down to three main interviewees: Samuel’s best friend Vandad, a woman not-quite-lover Panther, and Laide, the lover he broke up with a little before his death. Their narratives, sometimes expanded by scenes imagined by the writer, are interwoven, filling one another’s gaps, contradicting one another, commenting – often harshly and unfairly – on the others’ roles in Samuel’s life and death.

Samuel’s impending death provides a central narrative thread, but the book sends out tendrils into very interesting parts of Swedish society. There’s a brilliantly cinematic moment when a recorded tourist commentary on Stockholm plays on while the people hearing it are experiencing a very different version of that city – which is the version where the main action of the novel plays out, populated by artists, low-level public servants and community workers, struggling members of the gig economy, petty criminals, refugees, most of them, like Jonas Hassen Khemiri himself who has a Tunisian father, of African or West Asian heritage.

Some of the time as we listened we were driving through bush that is just beginning to put out new shoots of recovery from bushfire. In spite of the competition from the real world, the world of the novel kept us engaged (though we had to turn it off every so often to let the surrounding devastation sink in).

There are some meta elements. One of the interviewees tells the writer not to attempt to write Samuel in the first person because he can never know what was in Samuel’s mind. The reader (at least this reader) agrees, and the whole weight of the novel seems to lie behind the advice. Then, in the next section, Samuel’s internal monologue appears for the first time. And in the last ten minutes or so the writer explains to us why he undertook the project. These, and similar moments, may be just clever bits of mise-en-abîme (you know: the camera draws back and you realise you’re looking at a picture within a picture within a picture, ad infinitum), but I read them as moving the narrative beyond journalistic enquiry to something more emotionally engaged – and thereFore more emotionally engaging.

The Bolinda packaging doesn’t mention a translator. I found Rachel Willson-Broyles’s name online in connection with the English print edition, and assume that the smooth, elegant English on these discs is hers. And reader Jack Hawkins is a master at speaking to the microphone intimately, so that it almost feels as if the narrative is unfolding inside the listener’s head, while at the same time he manages the extraordinary feat of always, or almost always, being clear which of several voices is speaking at any given time.

Audio Books, sadly

When the Emerging Artist and I were much younger, I used to read to her on long car trips. For quite a while now, my voice has given out after an alarmingly short time, and we have turned to other entertainments. Audio books we’ve enjoyed are Magda Szubanski’s reading of her memoir Reckoning, and Bruce Kerr and Helen Morse’s reading of Donald and Myfanwy Horne’s Dying: A Memoir, though we only listened to half of the latter. We couldn’t stand David Tredinnick’s actorly reading of Tim Winton’s Island Home, though we could tell the book itself was interesting.

This blog post reports on two more experiments on Audio books on car drives from Sydney to Aireys Inlet in Victoria.


Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason, Saga Land (2017, audible.com 2018)

This is an introduction to the Icelandic sagas embedded in a travel book. It includes Kári Gíslason’s personal story of claiming his Icelandic identity – he was born in Iceland to an Australian mother, but his Icelandic father wasn’t acknowledged on his birth certificate, or at all until he went looking for him as a young adult. It also tells about the friendship between travelling companions Fidler and Gíslason. They wrote alternate chapters and each reads his own chapters in the audio book.

I loved the tellings of the Icelandic sagas – both for their own sakes and for the light they cast on books like Independent People and movies like Rams, and TV shows like Trapped. A year later, my mind has indelibly retained a chilling moment from one of the sagas where a woman exacts revenge for what would now be called an act of domestic violence. And Fidler and Gíslason were excellent company.

Either my ageing ears or our feeble car radio meant that Richard Fidler’s tendency to fade away at the end of sentences made his sections of the book hard to follow at times. But this was a minor blemish compared to readers of other books (see below).

Our car trip, in January last year, ended before the book did, and I didn’t blog about it immediately because I intended to read the rest of it to myself. But as more than a year has now passed, I have to admit that I’ll never get around to it. That is to say, it was a pleasant, instructive read, but not compelling enough to make me go to any trouble to finish it.


Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Bolinda Publishing 2011, read by David Tredinnick)

In spite of my having wanted to throw Evie Wyld’s more recent novel All the Birds, Singing across the room, we’d both enjoyed it enough to expect to enjoy this.

We didn’t. In spite of the pleasures provided to this North Queensland boy by a sugarcane-field setting, we gave up after three of the ten discs, partly because its two narrative strands were going to meet in fairly predictable ways, partly because in one of them the characters felts utterly contrived, especially a weirdly taciturn little girl, and partly because David Tredinnick’s ‘do the police in different voices’, though probably objectively excellent, got on our nerves. For my taste, his reading injects too much actorly interpretation between the writing and me, and I find myself fighting with him over the characters when I’d rather be lost in the story.

We shifted to podcasts – Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews and This American Life. Maybe if I go blind I’ll reconcile myself to audio books, and I’m not ruling out getting another one from the library if we do that drive again. But for now, I’m not an audio book fan.

Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning & Tim Winton’s Island Home

Magda Szubanski, Reckoning: A Memoir (Text 2015; Bolinda audiobook read by Magda Szubanski)
Tim Winton, Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Hamish Hamilton 2015; Bolinda audiobook read by David Tredinnick)

9781925240436.jpg We listened to Reckoning on a car trip fromSydney to Brisbane and then part of the way back. It’s hard to imagine a book better suited to such a trip.

Magda Szubanski, a superb comedian as the fat, unloved but ever optimistic Karen in Kath and Kim, and the bustling farmer’s wife in Babe, here comes out as a complex, thoughtful person with quite a lot to say and the ability to say it well. I particularly admire her way with similes. As you’d expect of a celebrity memoir, it gives us the background story on a number of her well-known and much-loved parts, as well as her more obscure commercial and critical failures. Unsurprisingly, it goes into her family history, but though there are elements of celebrity-misery-memoir in the story that emerges of a depressed mother and a rigid, disciplinarian father, the narrative transcends that category to become something much more interesting.

There are many strands. Possibly the most interesting is Magda’s quest to understand her father. She tells us at the start that he was a teenaged assassin, an ally to Jews who put his own life at risk, and a member of the Polish resistance during World War Two. A key element of her own life story is her gradual uncovering of the details and significance of that, and of its implications for how he related to his own children. There’s also her struggle with weight, and the agonising story of her coming to terms with her sexuality, of coming out to her family, and then to the world is a revelation. (That is to say, I vaguely remember that when she came out my response was something like, ‘That’s interesting – Oh look, something shiny!’ For her, it was a major decision: she had to face the possibility that her career and any number of important relationships would go down the drain, and she also had to face head-on the internalised version of the vicious oppression that comes at Lesbians and Gay men.)

Magda Szubanski reads this audio book, and I recommend this as a way of receiving it. Perhaps it would be funnier read on the page: there’s plenty of wit, but Szubanskidoesn’t play for laughs. She does, however, do the voices: her father’s Polish accent (‘Ach, Maggie’), mother’s soft Scottish burr, her own childhood pipe, and any number of show-biz types (her impression of Mark Trevorrow is uncanny).
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islandhome.jpgWhen we’d finished Magda’s book, we moved on to Tim Winton’s Island Home. Sadly, we lasted only about 40 minutes into it, and even that was a struggle. The book itself is interesting. Winton writes about the meaning of the land in Australian sensibilities: we have more geography than culture here, he says; the long Aboriginal custodianship of the land has had a very different impact from the ubiquitous naming and taming of Europe, and the last two centuries have not erased that.

The book is interesting, and I hope to read it some time. But my companion and I found David Tredinnick’s reading intolerable. He did that thing of not trusting the words to do the work, but injecting emotion and significant intonations. The effect was to constantly draw attention to the words rather than to what they were trying to say. You could tell that Winton was struggling to articulate something, but it was being read to us as pronouncements of wisdom from on high. I see from Bolinda’s site that David Tredinnick is a frequent reader for them. I hope this performance isn’t typical.

Added later:
aww-badge-2015Reckoning is the twentieth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Fry’s Falen’s Pushkin’s Onegin

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1833, translated by James E Falen 1990, narrated by Stephen Fry 2013, Digital October Publishing House)

1eoThis audio book is sheer delight. James E Falen’s verse is fluid, witty, full of charm. Stephen Fry’s reading is superb – unfolding the pleasures of the language with the same infectious relish he brings to his role of BBC game-show host.

Vladimir Nabokov said it was impossible to translate Eugene Onegin into verse that kept the rhyme scheme or the  ‘bloom’ of the original. I know about 3 words of Russian, so I’m in no position to argue, but I’m going to assume that Falen’s attempt approaches the impossible, and  that the poem I’ve just had read to me is essentially Pushkin’s. I now agree with the quasi-mother-in-law who told me in my 20s that reading Pushkin was one of life’s great joys.

I mainly listened to it while driving around the city, which means that for the first couple of hours of it I was negotiating traffic with a slack-jawed grin. Incredibly, the cheerful, witty urbanity of the first parts – where the death of a rich uncle, the ennui of endless Moscow balls, a dilettante’s reading habits, and the passion of a young man who today would be called an emerging poet are all subjects of light, ironic banter – gradually yields to a more serious tone. By the end, the sprightly ‘Onegin stanza’ – shorter lines than Shakespeare, lots of feminine rhymes – has proved suitable for telling of calamity, betrayal and despair. It’s a much smaller story than Anna Karenina, but I’ve got no doubt that Tolstoy knew it well and expected his readers to have read it, and I bet scholarly papers have been written about the relationship between the two works.

I’ve done a tiny bit of research about the translation: Stephen Saperstein Frug’s blog, Eugene Onegin in English Translation, quotes 10 versions of the first stanza, including the one from Charles H. Johnston’s 1977 translation, which inspired Vikram Seth to write The Golden Gate. I’m very glad to have met Onegin in James E Falen’s version, but I recommend Frug’s site if you’re planning to read the poem and shopping around among Englishings. (Nabokov’s version of the first stanza, which ostentatiously avoids trying to sound like verse, manages not to read like English either.)