Thursday, February 6, 2014

Better listen

Tenth of December
by George Saunders

What could be worse than being stuck inside the mind of a flighty teenaged girl going on and on about how much she loves, loves, loves, her cushy life? How about giving up on a great read not even halfway through the first story.

When the New York Times named Tenth of December one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 I felt obligated to have another stab at it. Am I glad I did. This time I tried the audiobook, knowing there could be no giving up if it were part of my commute. Worked like a charm.

The Times called Saunders's stories "wickedly entertaining," and I couldn't agree more. His eye for the telling details of workaday life and ear for the way people really talk (even just to themselves) are spot on. But his mastery of the quotidian is married to a mad inventiveness, yielding stories in which a terminal cancer patient tries to commit suicide but ends up saving a boy instead, middle class families rent immobilized but conscious third-world women as yard art, and psychoactive drugs are tested on prisoners who go from sublime love to tortured despair at the push of a button. Bleak and sometimes trippy stuff, to be sure, but always compassionate and surprisingly funny as well. If you're a fan of Vonnegut before he succumbed to aggressive curmudgeonliness, Saunders will seem like an old and dear friend.

The audiobook is read by the author himself, who turns out to be a natural storyteller, effortlessly shifting voice from one character to another. And his working-class Chicago accent lends his characters a humanity and authenticity a more elegant reading might miss. I have a feeling I'll go back and actually read this collection someday, but for now I am glad to have listened to it instead. Saunders has been fantastic company on my way to work and back these past couple of weeks.

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Review by Don Beistle

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