Reading List, August 2017: My Last (And Next) Five Books

Don’t mind telling you, I’m pretty happy about how my reading year has gone so far. I’ve finished 14 books, well on my way to reaching my goal of 25 books and 100 short stories by the end of the year. AND, since every book I’ve read so far was written by a female author, I’m also on target for my stretch goal, which was to read 25 books BY WOMEN this year.

Here are the latest five I’ve read, in reverse order: most recent to oldest:

Wonderful_TonightWonderful Tonight by Pattie Boyd. The author was a young model in the 1960s in England when she got a job appearing in the Beatles movie “A Hard Day’s Night.” She met George Harrison, they fell in love and got married. He wrote the song “Something” about her.

They ran in the same circles with a lot of other British musicians, of course, and at some point, she met Eric Clapton, who promptly fell in love with Boyd, his friend’s wife. Clapton wrote the classic unrequited-love song “Layla” about her. Eventually, he lured her away from Harrison, and Boyd and Clapton got married; among other songs Clapton wrote about her was “Wonderful tonight,” which became the title of her memoir.

I love all those 60s English rockers, so I really enjoyed the book. It was very much her side of the story; I actually have both Clapton’s and Harrison’s autobiographies, and I’m looking forward to reading them even more now.

Stillhouse_LakeStillhouse Lake, by Rachel Caine. This was a “Kindle First” book for the month of June. If you’re in Amazon Prime and you use the Kindle app, every month you get to pick a book from a list of six pre-release books. Usually it’s nothing I’ve heard of and by authors I don’t know, and to be honest, I’ve been just letting the books pile up in my Kindle library. Something about this one, though intrigued me, and I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

I think I tend to be overly judgmental about mysteries and thrillers. I’m constantly on the lookout for plot holes and inconsistencies, and if I come upon they can ruin the book for me. This book, though, contained none, and even though the subject matter wasn’t really my typical fodder—a woman’s husband is found to be a serial killer, and she lives her life on the run from those who want to punish her for his deeds—I found the book gripping and well done. There was one flaw, which I would call more of a marketing error than a plotting error, but it’s something of a spoiler. I won’t discuss it here. If you read it, though, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

WaitTilNextYearWait Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This was the first book I’ve ready by DKG. A Pulitzer Prize winner, she’s most known for her presidential biographies, but this book was a memoir of her youth growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan—the endless yearning and the inevitable disappointments. During her childhood, the Dodgers were one of the best teams in the National League, but when they would make the World Series, they would fall to the rival Yankees. And then, finally, the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955 … but then almost immediately moved to Los Angeles.

As a St. Louisan, I can relate to the civic pride that is attached to a long-time successful sports franchise—and also the sense of civic betrayal when a city’s team packs up and moves elsewhere.

I try to read at least one baseball book each summer, and this will be the one for 2017. As mentioned here, I definitely want to read more books by DJG. However, since my “to read” shelf is pretty full, they’ll probably have to (ahem) wait till next year.

The_WidowThe Widow, by Fiona Barton. This one was OK. Amazon has it in the “Thrillers and Suspense” category, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a thriller, and the suspense was, well, minimal. It’s the story of a woman whose husband died in an accident after being accused of the abduction of a child, and the police detective and a tabloid reporter trying to get her story. As I mentioned above, I’m kind of picky about fiction, and I feel like one of the rules is that you limit the point of view to critical characters only. Another is that if a first-person character has knowledge of something, it’s not fair for that character to act like he/she doesn’t have that knowledge in the first 2/3 of the book, and then suddenly, when it’s convenient for the storyteller, reveal the information. I felt like both those rules were violated in this book. I probably won’t be reading her new book, which is coming out this summer.

AllIDidWasAskAll I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians and Artists, by Terry Gross. Terry Gross is the exceptional host of the NPR program Fresh Air, and, as the title indicates, this book contains excerpts of transcripts from dozens of interviews with people from the various entertainment fields. She is a brilliant interviewer, one of the best in the business, and she brings out the humanity in her guests. Or in some cases—I’m lookin’ at you, Gene Simmons—the inhumanity.

The only drawback of this book is that it was published 13 years ago. I think it’s about time for a follow-up.

*****

And here comes the part where I’ll try to predict the next five books I’ll read. I never get this right, but I keep doing it.

Brother Of The More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. (This one I know for sure—because I’m already halfway through it.)

Giant Of The Senate by Al Franken. Pretty sure on this one as well. It’ll break my string of books by women, but I just got it and I really want to read it.

La Rose by Louise Erdrich.

You Can’t Catch Me by Joyce Carol Oates.

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation Of An American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt.

Reading List: My Last (And Next) Five Books, March 2017

The election of our first woman president was a momentous occasion, and I decided to commemorate the milestone by reading a lot of books by female authors this year.

Oh, wait…

Turns out, we didn’t elect a woman president. (Well, WE did, but the Electoral College chose someone else, but that’s another story…) I’m not going to let that deter me, though; I’m still going to read a lot of books by women this year, including my first five, listed below.

My standard goal is to read 25 books in a year. I haven’t reached that goal lately, but I think I’m going to stretch it this year, and try to read 25 books BY WOMEN. In addition to a few by men. So I’m really challenging myself, but I’ve discovered that I can get through thrillers and mysteries pretty quickly, and there’s certainly no shortage of books in that genre by women I’d like to read, so I think it’s doable. And even if I don’t make it, I don’t think I’ll die trying.

Another thing about my reading lately: I normally try to alternate my books, one novel followed by one nonfiction. Lately, though, I’m finding the real world’s nonfiction—or maybe I should put that in quotes, like “nonfiction”—is a little too much to take, so I’ve been taking refuge in fiction. It’s been all novels so far this year, and that will probably continue for at least the next couple of books. I did get a couple of enticing (and male-written) nonfiction books for Christmas, though, so both of these trends will be broken at some point, probably later this spring.

In any case, here are my first five books of 2017:

The AwakeningThe Awakening, by Kate Chopin. This is actually a novella, I guess (but when you’re stretching your goals, novellas can count as books).

I chose to start off my feminist-reading year with this 100-year-old book by an author from St. Louis. I enjoyed it for the most part, but it did feel, well, a little dated.

Rubyfruit JungleRubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. In addition to books written by women, another reading theme of mine, lately, is gay/lesbian books. As a straight guy, it’s an area I haven’t explored much in my reading, but I’ve been working on remedying that over the last six months or so. As is true of all of us, I have a lot of friends who are gay, almost certainly more than I realize. A couple of them have mentioned this book as a classic of lesbianism, so I hunted for it and found it through the library.

I enjoyed the book. It’s basically a coming-of-age story, starring a full-of-life protagonist who knows what she wants and generally ends up getting it.

SalvageTheBonesSalvage The Bones by Jessmyn Ward. This one had been on my “want to read” list for a long time, mainly because it was a National Book Award winner about Hurricane Katrina, an event I remember vividly although I didn’t experience it personally. The book is about a poor family living in coastal Mississippi in the days leading up to and including the hurricane, a time during which the protagonist, a 14-year-old girl, learns she’s pregnant. The family tries to prepare for the coming storm, while she tries to keep her secret. The drama builds and by the time I was halfway through the book, I didn’t want to put it down. Fair warning: there is a fairly intense scene of dogfighting in the book which will certainly bother some readers.

TheRiverAtNightThe River At Night by Erica Ferencik. I’m not generally a reader of thrillers, but I was in the mood for a quick, intense read. So, while at the library dropping off Salvage The Bones, I took a look through the New Releases rack and found this one. I’m kind of a sucker for books (or movies or music) with bodies of water in the title, so it didn’t take long for me to decide it would be my next read. It was a good choice.

Four friends, all women, head to Maine for a whitewater adventure on an uncharted river. They have a guide who has run the river a few times before, but some of the women have doubts about him. Safe to say, their inexperience catches up with them, and they have to deal with a lot of unexpected hazards along the way. I found it very well-plotted and well-written, and I read it in about five days, which is extremely rare for me. I’ll be reading more in this genre this year.

TheBeanTreesThe Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. This is this third book by Barbara Kingsolver that I’ve read. (Flight Behavior and The Poisonwood Bible were the first two.) I’m always impressed by her descriptions of nature; “place” is always a key element in her books, although maybe a little less so in this one than the other two. And I also love her ability to create unique, memorable characters. This was her first novel, but her voice was already well developed. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of her work.

*****

An interesting (for me, anyway) note: four of these five books came from the library. I’ve been a booster and a trustee of our local library for years, but, oddly, more often than not I end up buying books for my Kindle rather than checking them out of the library. Well, I’m making a conscious effort to use the library more, and saving some money in the process!

*****

Usually, at this point, I list five more books, my best guess at the next five I’ll be reading. Rather than go out on that particular limb, though (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it right; inevitably, some other book strikes my fancy or suddenly becomes available or something), here are some books that I have my eyes on to read in the coming months. My next reads will certainly include some of these, probably not all:

The Woman In Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware.

In The Woods, by Tana French

Consenting Adult, by Laura Hobson

The Roundhouse, by Louise Erdrich

Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg

Illumination Night, by Alice Hoffman

Land of Enchantment, by Leigh Stein

*****

As always, if you’re interested in keeping up with what I read in real time—rather than waiting for me to write about it here in Shoulblog—you can friend me up on Goodreads. I’m always interested in recommendations for books to read.

Reading List, July 2016: My Last (And Next) Five Books

What are you reading? It’s one of my favorite questions. Here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, along with my best guess at the next few. I do this every once in a while on Shoulblog: previous posts are here and here and here and here and here and here.

This time, it’s a pretty good group of books. These are listed in reverse order: i.e., most recent first.

(And by the way, here’s another reminder: if you’d like, you can friend me up on Goodreads, and that way you can follow along in near-real time, and I can see what you’re reading too!)

51UbMPz9x5L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_1) Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. Several people have recommended this book to me over the last few years, and man, were they right. This novel revolves around a a real event: a tightrope walker who stretched a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked across in 1974. The book follows several characters who were indirectly affected by that event. Just stellar writing and characterization throughout; definitely the best book I’ve read in a while.

61mTY9T9xBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_2) It Happened In Wisconsin, by Ken Moraff. An allegory about a barnstorming, socialist, Depression-era baseball team that gets trapped in a Wisconsin hotel with a capitalist provocateur. A fun read.

I try to read at least one baseball book each summer, and I guess this one will fulfill that role, but I’m always open to reading more, if y’all have any suggestions.

51L5cGs+4jL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_3) Long, Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America, by Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg is is the author of one of my favorite writing books, Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within; I’ve read it a couple of times, and it definitely colors the way I feel about writing.

Long, Quiet Highway is an autobiographical story of her spiritual journey in Zen Buddhism, a journey that coincided with the development of Writing Down the Bones and other books of hers that I’ve read, so it was interesting to see how those stories came together.

41-ZKdTxiRL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_4) Wall Of Glass, by Walter Satterthwait. I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but this one popped up on one of my bargain Kindle-books sites, and since it was set in Santa Fe, N.M., I snapped it up. I’ve been to Santa Fe a couple of times and am planning to go back later this year, because I simply can’t get enough of New Mexico. This one definitely captured a lot of the northern New Mexico flavor that I’ve been craving.

I say I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I think I’ll be reading more: when well done, they can be quick, fun reads, and I’m all about that.

41c6I2lIMDL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_5) Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton. A book of short essays about a life in swimming by a former competitive swimmer whose career reached the Canadian Olympic Trials. Funny, insightful and, to the limits of my own swimming experience, accurate.

By the way, Natalie Goldberg in No. 3 wrote about Zen and writing, but for me, I think swimming is more of a Zen experience. But then again, I’m pretty new to this Zen thing.

And now, here’s a guess, just a guess, at the next five books I’ll read

High Season, by Jon Loomis. Picked this up at a bargain-book sale somewhere. It’s another mystery, set in Provincetown, Mass. See, I pick my mysteries based on the setting. Since I’m currently on a beach vacation—but not in Provincetown, alas—I figured this would be a good one to read; I started it yesterday.

Saving Capitalism: For The Many, Not The Few, by Robert Reich. I recently received this as a gift, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the former Labor secretary has to say.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. This one’s been on my to-read list for a while. At the beginning of this year, I moved it to my must-read-this-year list (along with Let The Great World Spin). I read Flight Behavior a couple of years ago, and always wanted to read this one.

Salvage The Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. Another well-reviewed book that has always piqued my interest.

Death Comes For The Archbishop, by Willa Cather. A New Mexico classic.

Thanks for playing along, and hey, maybe I’ll see you on Goodreads!

 

Reading List: July 2015

Whoa. Hey, it’s been a while, sorry.

Let’s get this blog (re)started with a reading update. Haven’t done one of these in a couple of years, but for those of you who followed this thread in the past (here and here and here and here and here), there’s some good news at No. 1.

Here, in reverse chronological order, are the last five books I’ve read:

stan1. Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. This one had been on my list for years. For a while, I wanted to make sure and read it before Stan died—but then he died, and the impetus passed with him. But I’m feelin’ baseball this summer, so I finally grabbed it and read it. Very interesting book. Not your typical biography, so much as a series of stories to illuminate The Man’s life. Some of them went on a little too long, but on the whole I really enjoyed it.

financial2. The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter. I’m a sucker for a good title, and this one got me. And the text lived up to the title. There was lots of laughing out loud while I read this book, a story about a guy who has lost everything and then sets out to lose more. I’ll definitely be reading more from this author. I’m also a sucker for bargain books; I’m on about three lists that send me daily emails with reduced-price e-books. This was one of those books, as were Nos. 3 and 5 in this list.

manhunt3. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase To Catch Lincoln’s Killer, by James Swanson. For a while this spring, I was on a Civil War reading binge, and this was one of the books. A pretty interesting documentation of the assassination of Lincoln and attempted assassination of several of his Cabinet members, followed by the long hunt for John Wilkes Booth and co-conspirator David Herold.

Gettysburggrantnever4. Gettysburg, Grant Comes East and Never Call Retreat, by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. OK, it’s three books—a trilogy—but I’m embarrassed enough to have Newt in this list that we’ll just confine it to one slot. This was sort of an alternative history of the Civil War, beginning with the battle of Gettysburg, speculating how things might have gone if Robert E. Lee had not attacked head-on on the second day of the battle, but instead tried a different tactic. The three books detail how things might have played out over the next year or so, as Lee and Ulysses Grant square off in a series of subsequent battles. All in all, a pretty interesting take.

horses5. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson. This novel was on sale for a couple of bucks in the Kindle store, and I guess I was in the mood for something Scandinavian, so I picked it up. I was glad I did. It was a very enjoyable read, set in Norway, and much of it in flashback to the World War II years. It may be the first book I’ve read that was translated from Norwegian, and I found the style very interesting: very, well, Scandinavian.

The Next Five

Now, although I’m never very good at this and this time it’s even more guesswork than usual, here’s a list of what just might be the next five books I’ll read:

1. The Dirty Parts of the Bible, by Sam Torode. Like I said, I’m a sucker for a good title. I’ve  started this one and it’s going by very quickly, which is a good sign.

2. Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee. My initial instinct, after the first reports came out about a racist Atticus Finch in this book, was to not read it. But since then I’ve heard more positive feedback, and that this one reveals some things about the development of To Kill A Mockingbird, which is at or near the top of my (and probably most readers’) “favorite books” list.

3. From The Bottom Up, by Chad Pregracke. This is the story of the man who took it upon himself to clean trash and waste from the banks of the Mississippi River a decade or so ago, and built up a network of fellow volunteers and corporate supporters that has spread throughout the river system. A couple of years ago, he was named CNN’s Hero of the Year.

4. A Sudden Light, by Garth Stein. Like “Watchman,” above, this was a birthday present, and I’m looking forward to diving into this fairly new book from the author of “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” another favorite.

5. Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. I’m guessing, the way my reading’s going this year, that I’ll be about at this point in my list when this new novel comes out in September.

How ’bout you? What books are on your list?

Questions For The Author

Author Jonathan Franzen, in the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” part of his 2012 collection Farther Away, writes that whenever a novelist gives a public talk or reading, he or she is invariably asked four “unpleasant questions.” They are, he writes “apparently the price we have to pay for the pleasure of appearing in public.”

The four questions are:

1) Who are your influences?

2) What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?

3) I read an interview with an author who says that at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters “take over” and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?

4) Is your fiction autobiographical?

I’ve been to a few readings/book signings over the years (not my own … but with real authors), and I can verify that yes, these four questions or close approximations are usually asked. And I can see why an author wouldn’t like them, particularly when repeated night after night.

But I’m going to confess that at one time or another, I probably would have asked the same questions, had I gotten up the nerve to stand up and ask something. I’ll go even further to say that the one that authors probably find the most banal is the question I’m most interested in. That would be No 2, about the author’s working hours and habits. Of the four questions, Franzen gave the least amount of space—one paragraph—to dispatch that one, although his answer does include one of the best lines I’ve ever read about the work of writing:

When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.

OK, I don’t really care what time an author works, and I don’t care if he writes longhand which word processor he uses (although years ago, I was fascinated by the choice-of-word-processor questions). But what I’m curious about is the process of writing: how the author can get himself into the frame of mind in which he can create characters and stories out of nothing. Because I’ve dabbled in that a little bit myself once or twice over the years, and man, is it tough. When one is leading a real-world life, it’s hard to imagine being able to create fictional lives.

So there must be some secret to it, and we wannabes have to show up at all the readings to try and get the authors to give it up.

As for the time-of-day question, I think this author probably has the right idea. She jumps in to writing the first thing in the morning, after only breakfast and coffee, and without letting any newspapers, television or Internet to get between her and the words. I’ve not read any of Roxana Robinson’s fiction, but I think I’ll give her a try this year.

Reading List, December 2012: My Last (And Next) Five Books

It’s been way too long since my last Five Books list. But it’s been a crazy-busy last few months, and for a while there my reading seemed to have just fallen off a cliff. But hopefully I’m back on track now. So herewith, are the last five books I’ve read, and a semi-wild guess at the next five.

The Submission1) The Submission, by Amy Waldman. I wrote about this book here, and I still feel it’s one of the best novels I’ve read recently. The story involves a selection jury for a memorial to go at Ground Zero on lower Manhattan.The entry process is anonymous, and the winner turns out to be Muslim. The resulting uproar will be all too familiar if you look back at the “Ground Zero Mosque” flap from a couple of years ago.

After The Submission, things got a little scrambled. I had several books going at a time for a while there, and it seemed like I wouldn’t get through any of them. I finished one, but then the Summer Olympics happened, an election happened, and my reading stalled. Once October rolled around, I was able to get back on track and finish some books. Here they are, in the order I completed them.

the-greatest-prayer-crossan2) The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan. This probably isn’t one I  would have chosen on my own, but it was selected by our minister for a Vacation Bible School summer reading study.

The “greatest prayer” refers to the Lord’s Prayer, and the book dissects the prayer, line by line, to examine the meaning of the individual sections as well as the prayer as a whole.  The book’s prologue calls it “a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth.”

That sums it up pretty well, I think.

Anyway, it was an interesting read and an enlightening discussion.

divine providence3) Divine Providence by Charles Camillo. It has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with the flood of 2011, and the Corps of Engineers’ and Mississippi River Commission’s multi-layered efforts to fight it. Camillo works for the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The division and the commission had to fight the flood from Cairo, Ill., down to the mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, and it was a harrowing battle  in each location as the record-setting crest moved downstream. For the first time in history, the Corps had three floodways operating at once—Bird’s Point in Missouri and Morganza and Bonnet Carré in Louisiana. In the end, the Corps won, but just barely.

whoIam4) Who I Am by Pete Townshend. This is one I looked forward to from the moment I first heard he was writing it. I bought it for my iPad on the day it was released, and jumped right in.

Pete Townshend, if you don’t know by now, is the guitarist and songwriter for The Who, and one of the intellectual leaders of rock music — throughout the Who’s long career, he wrote a number of commentaries, including a regular column in Melody Maker magazine and several memorable articles in Rolling Stone, among others.

In this book, he goes lays it all out, back to his childhood, his very early musical influences, the growth of the Who, the creation of Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia and their other albums, and his life during what I consider the post-Who period—although he and Roger Daltrey are actually still going strong, as evidenced by last week’s 12-12-12 concert.

As I figured I would, I loved this book. There were a lot of great surprises in it for me. But I don’t really want to go into those, because there are some important people who I know haven’t read it yet. So here are a couple of things I didn’t like about it: way too much information about his affairs and the dissolution of his marriage, and too many details about his various studio setups, particularly in recent years (I’m not a audio tech geek; he obviously is). But you can put up with those things; if you’re a Who fan, it makes a great read.

secret_life_of_bees

5) The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. This is actually one of the books I had started way back in June. but events got in the way. We had this in the house, and my friend Anne said it would be a great follow-up after reading To Kill A Mockingbird, so I jumped in. She was right, and it was a great book. After starting it and being unable to continue at the time, I started again from the beginning in November, and sped through it.

I did enjoy the book, and it was indeed a worthy successor to Mockingbird, although Harper Lee’s novel remains the best book I’ve read this year, and maybe ever.

*****

Along the way, over the course of these last five books, I’ve been moonlighting with some other books, as well. There were the two audiobooks I listened to during a driving trip to Little Rock, Ark.

And I also undertook another project: I read the four gospels of the New Testament. Once or twice when I was younger, I set out to read the Bible, but I started with the Old Testament. But, as I’m sure many others did before me, I got bogged down in the begats and gave up on it. Starting with the New Testament felt much more “contemporary,” since that’s the stuff we talk about in church all the time. Contemporary goes in quotes because I was reading the King James version. As I move forward from there, I think I’ll switch over to a more modern translation (although I did enjoy the use of the verb “stinketh” in John 11). And yes, I will move forward, with Acts and on through the New Testament, and then on back to the Old Testament, unless someone wants to suggest a better plan. I’m open to suggestions of a direction to go from here, either in terms of a reading plan or for a favorite translation.

*****

And now, I will hazard a guess at the next five books I’ll be reading:

•   Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen. I’m already about halfway through this book of essays and speeches … some great stuff so far.

•   A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. My annual rereading of the classic Christmas story.

•   The Preacher King: Martin Luther King and The Word That Moved America. A Kindle bargain book a few months ago; I’m looking forward to diving in.

•   A Month of Sundays, by John Updike. Another reread; it’s been a couple of decades since I last read this one, and some of my views have evolved a little in that time.

•   Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. It’s been on my list for a year and a half now; this time I’m going to do it.

*****

Previous Five-Books lists:

List: My Last—And Next—Five Books

Reading List: January 2012

Reading List, May 2012: My Last—And Next—Five Books

To Focus On (Exactly) Two Things

A few weeks ago I had to drive to Little Rock, Ark., to cover a towboat christening for my work. I drove down there on a Friday, attended the christening on Saturday morning, and returned home that afternoon; the driving, round trip, was about 800 miles.

St. Louis to Little Rock might be one of the most boring drives in the country. It’s 400 miles of divided four-lane highway that cuts between endless flat farmland. The closest thing to a highlight is Cape Girardeau, Mo. If you’ve driven past Cape Girardeau on I-55, you will understand how depressingly bleak the drive is.

I was prepared for this trip, though. A day or so before I left, I went to the library and checked out a couple of audio books: Have A Little Faith by Mitch Albom, and Home by Toni Morrison. I ended up listening to Albom on the way down, and Morrison on the way back. (Both books were read by their authors for the audio versions.) I’ll get to the content in a moment, but I mainly wanted to discuss what it felt like to listen to literature, which was pretty much a new experience for me.

The conception I’d always had—one that was shared by just about everybody I mentioned it to—was that listening to an audio book would require too much concentration to be able to safely drive at the same time.

What I found, though, was just the opposite; although it did take a lot of focus to be able to listen to the books, it complemented, rather than compromised, my concentration on my driving.

Normally, I’d be listening to music when I drive, either a stack of CDs or whatever I could find on the radio. But music can get old after a while. Even if you’ve found CDs that perfectly fit your mood, sooner or later you’re going to get a less-than-perfect song, and your mind is going to drift to other subjects, like how much further you have to drive. What can be great about music—that it gives your mind room to roam and think about new things—can be detrimental on a long drive, when all you really want is to get there and what you don’t want is to think about how long it will be before you get there.

But shortly after I put in the first Mitch Albom CD, I found myself caught up in not just  the story, but also in the very act of focusing on the story. I realized that listening to this book was going to take considerably more concentration than simply listening to music. And as the story unfolded before me, I was completely engrossed in it, unable to think about anything else. besides the story and the highway.

I eventually had to force myself to take breaks every hour or so, I was concentrating so hard.

Speed-reading experts will tell you that one of the keys to reading is to NOT go back and reread. If you get through a paragraph or a page and you think you didn’t completely “get it,” you should just plow ahead and not try to go back and recover the meaning of what you just read. I’ll admit that I’m a pretty slow reader, and that kind of rereading is one of the reasons why.

But when listening to audiobooks, it’s all but impossible to rewind and relisten to something if you missed a word or two. Sure, you can go back to the beginning of the chapter, but that could take you back five or ten minutes in the story, and you really don’t want to do that. So you just continue going forward, focusing more carefully so you don’t miss anything else.

And it worked. By listening, I finally learned the lesson all those rapid-reading gurus were preaching. Just keep going forward. You do catch up. But it also taught me to concentrate even closer. I had to train myself to tune out everything else. I wouldn’t try this while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway or someplace like that where there’s actual scenery, but for St. Louis to Little Rock, it was perfect.

As for the driving, I don’t think the focus on the books hampered my ability to drive safely in the least. It’s possible that driving and listening to prose engage completely different sections of the brain, because I found I was able to concentrate on both the words and the road, with neither one getting in the way of the other. And yes, I know no person can judge his own driving skills, but I honestly felt I stayed more in tune with the driving part of it than on other recent driving trips.

As for the books, I really liked the Albom book, which I listened to first. It’s a non-fiction account, the stories of two men: the rabbi from Albom’s synagogue when he was growing up, who asks Albom to give his eulogy; and an inner-city pastor who runs a homeless shelter. Both are fantastic, huge characters, and Albom tells their stories in alternating chapters, while  discovering a lot about himself and about faith along the way.

Home was also a good listen. As with Have A Little Faith, this was my first book I’d read/listened to by the author. It’s the story of a poor brother and sister  in the South and how they deal with various traumas—his, the brutality of the Korean War, and hers, a shiftless first husband and then being the unwitting experimental subject of an unscrupulous doctor. It’s a smaller book, but Morrison reads it at a slow pace, so the audio version takes about as long as the Albom book. I found Home a little harder to follow than Have A Little Faith, in part because the point of view shifts back and forth between a number of the characters. But again, I was able to lock down the focus and concentrate on it, and the miles flew by, unnoticed.