A Tale Worthy of a Listen

What to look for when choosing a book, especially if you’re a novice audiobook consumer…

Today, as I was having my teeth cleaned, my dental hygienist told me she is NOT a reader these days because of having two little girls to whom she reads all the time (a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old), but has found herself addicted to Audible when she drives, cooks and does other chores. She tells me while I am flat on my back, my mouth opened as wide as it will go,

“I fall asleep when I pick up a book to read right before bed, but during the day, I’m finding it so much fun to listen to a romance novel. I’m a sucker for a good love story.”

Audiobook listeners are coming out of the woodwork to talk to me when I indicate that I am writing this post. I don’t have enough data to know if this is a true cultural phenomena, but something is definitely percolating among us.

Like our ancestors of old, we still LOVE listening to stories. If you’re not an audio book-o-phile, consider this…

  1. More and more, writers and publishers are thinking about the audio platform and their customers who like to hear a story. They are organizing books to cater to our ear, for example, making chapter titles to anchor the listening ear and investing in professional actors as readers.
  2. You can download many audiobooks from your library for free…right at your fingertips, no subscription necessary…just a library card.
  3. If you need more choice, try Scribd’s free 30-day trial.
  4. You can do the same with Audible.

But, how will you know what will be a satisfying listening experience? Here are a few tips, my opinions on the best audio books and the ones to be wary of…

Say YES to these audiobooks…

  1. Theatrical Productions. Great if you’re listening to a play and can be fun for multi-character stories. Back in the cassette tape era, our family listened to a version of THE HOBBIT, produced by a company of actors under the label Mindspring. The production was originally done for radio and I say version of THE HOBBIT because I believe they edited out/streamlined some of the longer descriptive portions of the novel. My children often listened while they took baths (sometimes for an hour or more…getting extra clean). They begged to hear and re-hear the Bilbo/Gollum dialogue and the Smaug/Bilbo interactions. The varied voices captivated their imaginations.
  2. Well-reviewed Professional Actors Reading Fiction…Those able to perform the various voices are sought after. The best are employed to read best sellers…like…Harry Potter. There exists (believe me…I found out as I wrote this post…the debate is rabid) an epic debate about who voiced the characters better between two readers, Stephen Fry or Jim Vale…both brilliant in their own right, Fry reads the British version of HP and Dale reads the American version. I am not picky! I recommend both versions! This link to the very real debate reveals how nerdy the listening audience can be…and how nerdy Harry Potter fans often are:
  3. Any Compelling Story told in First Person. This means, as a listener, you get to stick with one point of view for all of the tale (or, at least most of the tale). HUCKLEBERRY FINN is a good example, so is HUNGER GAMES and one of my recent favs, ANNIHILATION. The first person narration puts the listener in the head of one person, usually the main character, and the main character only. Many find it easier to follow one voice as a listener because you become acquainted with that narrator, the sound, mood and tone of the voice, the opinions held by him/her. You don’t always have to trust the narrator’s opinions, but at least you know him/her and maintain that point of view as an anchor when navigating the story universe in your imagination. At the end of this article I will post a few more science fiction first person narrations I recommend.
  4. Tried and Tested Non Fiction Authors. Writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis are a great fit for the beginner audio consumer simply because they are such great communicators in writing and in speaking (they read their own audio versions). And, as always, you can also read reviews at Audible or ScribD’s online stores or google the information like the bestselling non-fiction audio books A list like this will point you in the right direction.

 

What to avoid if you’re unused to listening to stories…

  1. A Novel with Many Characters and Storylines. I enjoyed the novel, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, but there were two things made that book a challenging listen…one was the vast number of character, some with semi-similar names. Since the book was originally written in Mandarin Chinese and my ear is not used to listening to the sounds and hearing the distinction regarding names, I was mixing up characters for a while before I got them straight. If I had had the physical book in front of me, I could have used the handy character list at the beginning of the book to keep myself straight. This story also jumps point of view, so anchoring in one mind and one voice were not an option.
  2. A Novel with Long Descriptive Passages. Tolkien fits into this mold. It’s not that you can’t listen to his books, but they might be challenging for beginners. I’m an audio learner and even my mind wanders when listening to Tolkien, especially portions of  THE TWO TOWERS, as the vast landscape around Rohan is described for page after page.
  3. Poorly Written Anything with Poorly Constructed Characters. I might be a snob here, but certain novels that are written by men in particular who write “their fantasy” of a man (a super brilliant spy or detective, for example) and stereotype women as needy or pseudo-independent, but are really dependent on the super spy dude and the writer denigrates all the main character’s rivals and writes dialogue that is cliché or just terrible to listen to…um…I don’t like those books in any form, not in audio, not in print, not on the screen. My husband and I listened to a book like this for a few hours until I could stomach it no further. We never finished it.
  4. Beware of the Textbook. Unless that textbook writer is a master storyteller, don’t start with this genre. Not that you can’t work your way up to it, but the kind of info that is dumped onto the page of a textbook is often so dense, it’s better to read with highlighter in hand and in shorter spurts.

 

 

And now for THE LIST

 

Recent audiobooks I loved:

ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer (scifi), first person narration

EMBASSY TOWN by China Miéville (scifi), first person narration

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (scifi), mostly first person narration

The first ¾ of THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg (non fiction) compelling subject matter for anyone

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer (YA speculative fiction), great story, few characters

Audiobooks that were a challenge to listen to:

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, by Liu Cixin  (scifi) for me, too many storylines and characters

the last ¼ of THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg (non fiction)…it felt redundant and repetitive by the end. I quit before finishing, but I’m glad I listened to the first ¾.

THE GANGSTER by Clive Cussler, Okay…he’s a NYTimes bestseller, but I found it difficult to stomach the characters and dialogue, dominated by cliché speeches and stereotypical males/females…maybe his other writing is better?

 

by Cixin Liu

Worthy of a Physics/Calculus Teacher’s Attention particularly high school and particularly for AP or IB Physics students

ALSO instructive for discussions in philosophy and ethics (see bottom paragraph)

High school physics instructors or calculus instructors…this novel would make a great summer reading assignment before your class begins in the Fall. One, the story is entertaining. Two, the story portrays historically some of the greatest physicists to walk planet Earth. Three, The Three Body Problem itself, the actual physics problem, this engages the physicist’s and the mathematician’s mind, Newtonian physics and all that jazz…Not that I understand it all, but I believe these the guys who write on the website: askamathematician.com. The excerpt below is from their website

The Three Body Problem is to exactly solve for the motions of three (or more) bodies interacting through an inverse square force (which includes gravitational and electrical attraction).

The problem with the 3-body problem is that it can’t be done, except in a very small set of frankly goofy scenarios (like identical planets following identical orbits).

The unsolvability of the 3-body problem, rather than being an embarrassing hole in physics, an obvious but unsolved problem, is actually the norm. In physics, the number of not-baby-simple, exactly solvable problems can be counted on the fingers of one hand (that’s missing some fingers), and that includes the 2-body problem.

The dynamics of one body is pretty straight forward, in as much as it travels straight forward.

The dynamics of two bodies, while not trivial, can be reduced by pretending that one body is sitting still, and then restricting all of your attention to the other body.  Using that technique, you find (or, at least, Newton found) that the motion of a body under gravity is an ellipse. The same idea can be applied to the quantum mechanics of electrons and protons to find the exact structure of the electron shells in hydrogen (1 proton + 1 electron = 2 bodies). In that case you’re not talking about actual orbits, but the idea is similar.

But, for three bodies, there doesn’t seem to be a fancy trick for finding solutions. As a result, the exact behavior of 3 or more bodies can’t be written down. The exact energy levels and orbital shell shapes in anything other than hydrogen is impossible to find.  Even deuterium (hydrogen with one extra neutron)! Can’t be done.

Despite that, we do alright, and happily, reality doesn’t concern itself with doing math, it just kinda “does”. For example, quantum field theory, despite being the most accurate theory that ever there was, never involves exactly solving anything. Once a physicist gets a hold of all the appropriate equations and a big computer, they can start approximating things. With enough computing power and time, these approximations can be made amazingly good. Computer simulation and approximation is a whole science unto itself.

The main actors in THE THREE BODY PROBLEM are almost all physicists and/or mathematicians and they’re nerdy, but not dweebs. Read chapter 5, A Game of Pool if you want a taste of what the novel offers. Then, there is the virtual reality, which unfolds as a puzzle/game and is played often by nanotechnology researcher, Wang Miao. Wang is compelled to understand the mystery introduced in the early chapters of the novel and realizes that the game is key to the revelation he seeks. In the game world, Wang walks through the history of physics with virtual characters like Confucius (our earliest physicists were primarily philosophers…a helpful connection for students to make), Newton and Einstein. Trisolara happens to be grappling with the three body problem. It is a planet in a solar system where there are three suns. The game players, along with the philosophers and physicists throughout history try again and again, in a systematic way, to solve the problem of the planet’s impending destruction. To go through each game level, Wang encounters physicists who have furthered the thinking regarding the problem. It’s like taking a course called The Intro to Physics…all this learning while the reader hurtles toward the big reveal at the end of the novel. Ah…to be entertained while learning…tis a wonderful thing. At the very least, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM ought to raise the curiosity level of your students and give them a glimpse of the relevance of physics and math to their everyday lives.

For the ethicist/philosopher, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM raises interesting issues about elites thinking they know best for all. The Cultural Revolution in China drives the narrative in the early chapters. Many elites are driven out of their positions of authority, killed or exiled by the communist party as it takes power. The author calls this a madness. (Chapter 1’s title is: The Madness Years). However, within the communist party, a new breed of elites rise to the top. Later, toward the final chapters of the novel, a group of environmental activists, along with men and women Liu specifies as elites across the globe, use their power to set in motion what they hope will be Earth’s salvation (knowing that saving the planet may come at the expense of most or all human lives). This small group of people have become judge, jury and executioner for humanity. Moreover, their hope for saving the Earth might not evolve the way they imagine. The stage is set for a discussion about power, elitism, environmental degradation and what might be ways to stem our self-destructive/planet-destroying tendencies.

To read a No-Spoiler review of this novel, click THREE BODY PROBLEM, Book Review

To buy THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, click here.

three body problem

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem
By Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu

Last month, my science fiction book group tackled THE THREE BODY PROBLEM. We used our 1.5 hours of group time discussing story-telling and physics. (We’re lucky to have a physics PhD in our midst. We’re luckier still that he makes a mean brew and brings us amazing pints of his beer creations each month.) Next time we meet, I’ll post a photo.

Short Review…

5 Reasons To Read THE THREE BODY PROBLEM

  1. Fascinating view into 20th century Chinese history
  2. Interesting and well-drawn characters
  3. A story with tension
  4. Physics, math problems, a virtual reality problem-solving game (nerd meter is tapped here!)
  5. A chance to read a Non-Western narrative

What ought I say about this epic tale? THE THREE BODY PROBLEM portrays a number of characters, most of them well-drawn. The story unfolds with tension, there is a mystery to be solved and the complicated physics concepts embedded in the tale are true science. A virtual reality in the form of a game played by one of the main characters, becomes a key to solving the mystery. The world the game introduces is imaginative and entertaining.

The characters do not look like white westerners, nor do they think like white westerners. I see that as a plus for the western reader. The characters are primarily Chinese Nationals, with a handful of others thrown into the story stew. (See the handy List of Characters page at the beginning of the book and refer to it when needed).

This novel is originally written in Mandarin Chinese, which means (unless you’re a fluent reader of Mandarin) you will read a translation of the original. Welcome to the 21st century, where story-telling centered around the English language will likely diminish, but not to our detriment. As story consumers, we’re living in the best of times.

And, in case you wonder about this tale’s place in the science fiction universe, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM won the Hugo Award in 2015. Moreover, Amazon has recently purchased the rights for adapting this novel for the screen (and the two that follow it) for 1 BILLION dollars. Yes…you heard me, 1 BILLION dollars and yes, this is the first of a trilogy (so far). Here is the link that tells the tale of the Amazon deal for those of you interested.

According to various entertainment news sites, Amazon is looking for the next Stranger Things or Game of Thrones that will add them to the mix of superior content providers. They are competing with Netflix, Hulu, HBO and now Disney Plus et al. for content. THE THREE BODY PROBLEM and its subsequent novels define superior content. Moreover, the trilogy so far (maybe it will expand as GOT did?) maintains a devoted fan following in China and across the globe, many, many millions of potential viewers who might become Amazon Prime members. You can begin to see the appeal to Amazon’s dealmakers.

So…with all that hype…what is my review of this story?

The Storytelling and Teasing out Who is the Main Character:

First, I will say that most of the members in our book group loved the novel overall. Some liked the story-telling, others did not like the style. The narrator is omniscient in a way that is sometimes disorienting, at least for the western reader. There are jump around moments when the point of view shifts somewhat abruptly from one character to another, from one time period to another, even to one solar system to another…I consumed the book on audio while on a road trip, so it’s possible I was more disoriented than if I had had the book in hand. The chapters often mark the dramatic scene/world/time changes. I was hearing them and not seeing them. There is something stark about viewing the blank page and a chapter heading. It triggers the eye, therefore the brain to prepare for the change. In the free-flow of audio, I don’t think my brain was always cluing in. I hope to write a post about audio books and their rise in our book consumption in the coming days.

Here is an example of the point of view shifts that will take place in this story. At the end of chapter 12, the reader moves from Red Coast Project site 1970s to chapter 13, where a series of selected documents are flatly divulged to the reader at a time in the future, as if the story-teller is showing us files, giving information about Red Coast Project, previously top secret…then, back to chapter 14, present day novel time, when a main character Wang Miao interacts with Professor Winjie, someone who worked for many years at Red Coast Project.

Wang Miao, a nano-tech researcher, is caught up in the mystery and trying to understand a complicated tangle of events taking place in the scientific community around him, including a number of prominent physicists committing suicide. He interfaces often with Ye Winjie throughout the novel, a retired physics professor, whose daughter is one of the physicists who has committed suicide. Ye and Miao are both primary characters. Miao is the most relatable character. He is trying to solve the mystery. I won’t call him THE main character only because from a story standpoint I understood Professor Ye Winjie to be the main character. The book begins and ends with scenes that involve her and/or her family, but Wang Miao is central to the unfurling of the mystery. He performs many acts that are crucial to the plot development, including, he plays the virtual reality game. The reader sees the game world and game characters through his eyes. So, who is the main character? It’s debatable…but between these two, I think it is Ye Winjie.

The main actors in THE THREE BODY PROBLEM are almost all physicists and/or mathematicians and they’re nerdy, but not dweebs. Read chapter 5, A Game of Pool if you want a taste of what the novel offers. The virtual reality world and the three body problem puzzle played often by Wang Miao make known the game planet of Trisolara. In the game, the reader walks through the history of physics because Trisolara has three suns and has to solve that problem or else, face destruction (which happens a number of times as Miao plays the game). The game players, along with physicists throughout history try again and again, in a systematic way, to solve the problem. Regarding the game and how it serves the story, I will leave that for your discovery.

Another aspect of storytelling that might disorient or bother the reader is the information dump that seems to happen periodically, like in chapter 13 as I mentioned above…also in chapter 25. An interrogation of professor Ye in this portion of the narrative ends up explaining a whole lot of back story. It’s not an awful dramatization, but so much information is divulged in one convenient scene, it would likely be deemed sloppy writing by many authors/literary critics…but hey, the question is…will you quit reading because of the way the information is delivered to you? I’m guessing the answer is no, you won’t quit. These info dumps happen throughout the novel and answer pieces of the mystery. The style of writing is probably not enough to stop the average reader, though one may be tempted to skim these sections.

Overall, THREE BODY PROBLEM is an entertaining and important read for the science fiction consumer, with a few new twists on an old scifi story that surprises and deepens the global tome that tries to envision humanity’s future.

For ideas on how to use this novel in class with students of math, science, philosophy or ethics, see my post: THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, For Educators or click here.

To buy THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, click here.

To buy the second book in the trilogy: THE DARK FOREST, Remembrance of Earth, click here.

To buy the third book in the trilogy: DEATH’S END, click here.

To buy the paperback boxed trilogy, click here.

To save yourself a bundle of dollars and shelf space, buy the trilogy on Kindle here.