The horns of a dilemma


I chose a short-horn bull because this is a relatively small dilemma.

I recently picked up a recording of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior, and now I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. I began listening to the recording and didn’t make it past the fourth sentence before I had to backtrack and listen again–the language is that good; something to savor. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are the first few lines:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.

“One hard little flint of thrill”–you see why I had to go back. Next, I found this:

The shame and loss would infect her children, too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She’s that one. How they admired their own steadfast lives. Right up to the day when hope in all its versions went out of stock, including the crummy discount brands, and the heart had just one instruction left: run.

I am pulled up short, wondering if I ever admire my own steadfast life, and what I might do about that.

You’re beginning to see the first horn of my dilemma–I’m having real trouble listening to this book because the language is so evocative that I have to keep stopping. As the audiobook is on 14 CDs, I may encounter troubles ahead, like potential difficulty following the plot due to my glacial pace. The image that comes to mind is of trying to stay upright on a bicycle whose wheels are barely turning.

One of the primary advantages of an audiobook is that you can listen while you’re doing other things, because often there is just not time to sit and turn pages. Yet if I need to backtrack every third sentence to hear an amazing line again, you can bet that the “other things” I’m trying to work on are getting short shrift.

It’s also true that for most of these phrases, a second hearing isn’t going to be enough; I want more, and I”m not sure how to get it. I want to put them in my mouth, taste them, own them. As this clearly is not something I can do, my usual course is to settle for making a small mark in the margin so it’s easy to return and gaze upon them later. For this, a recording is entirely impractical. I think I’m going to need a book with pages that I can hold.

But now we come to the other horn: however much I’m itching to see this language on a page, the print won’t give me the sound of Barbara Kingsolver reading her work, as the recording does. It’s not a flashy performance, but hearing the cadence of her speech, a small emphasis on a word here, her accent inflecting a word there, makes me think I don’t want to give it up. A sample will let you hear what I’m talking about. (click on the link under the book cover.)

If I listen to the book, I can’t mark amazing passages. If I read the book and mark passages, I miss the author’s actual voice conveying her character’s voice. Though it looks like either alternative leaves me with only half of what I want, in fact what I’ve got here is an embarrassment of riches, as well as a sharp reminder of why I ought to be less willing to read whatever random thing comes to hand, and put in the effort to seek out books whose language is good enough to land me on the horns of such a dilemma as this. This is absolutely the kind of problem I like to have.

Given the way I was snagged by the first page of this novel, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not very far into it, so I’m not the person to give a well-rounded review of the entire book. I can only say that if it goes on as it has begun, I will just make my excuses now regarding all the things I thought I might be doing in the near future.


14 thoughts on “The horns of a dilemma

  1. I love a good book recommendation! I’ll put it on my list. I understand about listening to a book…if the reader is good, it can be amazing. Frank and I like to listen to (rather than read) Isaiah for the same reason. You get a feel for the poetry of his writings by hearing someone read it well.

  2. Lori, one of the secrets I learned during my stint at Amazon was that many books are available both as a Kindle e-book AND as an Audible audiobook. This one is ( The next part of the secret is that e-books are cheaper than audiobooks. This one only costs $9 to buy for your Kindle. Then, after you buy the e-book, they’ll offer to sell you the audiobook as an add-on for only $13. So you get the Kindle version AND the audiobook for $22, which is less than the $31.49 it costs for the audiobook alone.

    And the icing on the cake of this secret is that many of these books (including this one) come with synchronization (which Amazon calls whispersync), which allows you to read along with the narration, and there is something like a bouncing ball that helps you follow the narration. [My speech group at Amazon was involved in some of the work to generate this synchronization]

    So maybe you can have the best of both worlds here… you can do whatever combination of reading, listening, or both that you want at any given time.

  3. I can totally relate, I’ve been enjoying audio books lately for when I’m walking or riding my bike, or even doing chores. I drive a lot, it’s way better listening to a talk or book than to music.
    Anyway, I was reading The Light Between Oceans and felt the same fervent admiration for her writing – It was like listening to an amazing singer and so wishing I could make those wonderful sounds. At least that was a book I could flip back and re-read easily.

    • “Well don’t that beat all!” or so might one of the characters from Flight Behavior respond to this coincidence–I finished The Light Between Oceans just a couple of weeks ago. More marvelous language, indeed–I found myself wanting to collar people and say, “here, just let me read this passage to you….”

  4. I gave this book to Craig for his birthday last year, and it’s probably one of only three books he has read in the past three years. (How did I end up married to someone who became a non-reader? He read when I married him. Maybe I can get the whole thing annulled.) But I forgot to ever read this book, so thanks for reminding me to get to it. Love you! Robbyn

    • There are a bunch of great quotes in it about being a mother of young children–I didn’t stop to write them down (as explained in the post), but if you do, send them to me–I think they want to grow up to be a monologue of some kind.

  5. Allow yourself the joy of a book! I love paper for family history and for books. And I love the comfort of letting myself just read–forget the laundry (though I do that without a book), the dishes, the weeds in the flowerbeds and the kids and lay back in a comfortable chair and read. It’s the whole thing. The feel, the smell, the sounds of the voices in my head (I’m a word by word reader and love savoring the sounds that way), and, yes, the ease of marking, and putting in bookmark. I’ve never tried the more modern approaches–a creature of habit who loves history and the past–but I’ve never wanted to while reading a good book.

    I’m suspecting that after a short listen to the beginning, you’d soon find yourself reading in a cadence much like the writer/reader just as I can’t read a talk by Elder Holland without hearing his voice speaking it.

    Isn’t it great to find such books?

  6. Pingback: Lori Notes turns 100 | Lori Notes

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