I have listened to hundreds of unabridged audiobooks of novels.
My all-time favorite fiction audiobooks are:
1. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Why they’re my favs:
1. Great narrators
2. Dynamic plots
3. Authentic dialects
4. “Hershey bar” details (credit for this phrase goes to my high school AP English teacher Ms. Edington -Thanks!!)
5. Southern issues
My first connection to Gaines was when The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Emmy-winning actress Cicely Tyson, aired on television. Later, at one of my favorite places, the library, I discovered that some authors’ books go to heaven in the form of television and movies. That was breaking news for a youngster aspiring to become a journalist and writer.
Gaines’ ‘Lesson’ is the late 1940s tumultuous story of a Louisiana teacher, Grant Wiggins. He must help an inmate, Jefferson, whose been convicted of murder learn to become a man en route to the death chamber. Jefferson's attorney called his client "a hog" during the trial, setting off Miss Emma, the condemned man's godmother. She tasks Wiggins with helping Jefferson die like a man, not a hog. The audiobook lifts the words from the novel, transforming them into miniscule arrows that gently drive into your brain. As a result, you are determined to hear all of the characters' points of view, along with understanding the settings, the conflict and the ending. After I finished the audiobook, I felt a sweet sadness because this digital roller coaster ride had ended and I had to, regrettably, head to the nearest exit. This Oprah Book Club selection is deeply moving.
A Lesson Before Dying Reading Group Guide
I happened upon the 'Eyes' audiobook at a Dallas library branch and quickly checked it out. I knew the narrator, Emmy-winning actress Ruby Dee, would deliver the goods like none other, and did she ever. Hurston writes about Janie Crawford, a black woman who learns to love herself in the midst of various life challenges, including three marriages.
The first time I heard “teaaacake” was when Dee put her spin on it and I can still hear her emphatic pronouncement. Tea Cake, a much younger man, is Crawford’s last husband. Dee aptly manages the dialects while guiding the listener through Crawford’s adventures. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who recovered Hurston’s work, is quoted as saying “there is no book more important to me than this one.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God Reading
A couple of people asked me several times if I had read The Help and I shook my head and promised to do so. I never got around to it until I saw the movie previews in July 2011. I got on a waiting list and eventually got the audiobook from a library. Seven days and 15 discs later, I felt like a twisted rope after listening to the journey of black maids working in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. Their stories were captured by a white University of Mississippi graduate intent on writing a book that a New York publisher is considering, according to the novel.
Each of the narrators is great in precisely delivering his or her characters’ lines. In fact they were so good, I forgot this was an audiobook. At times, it felt like they were in the room or in the car with me because their drawls, pauses and reading speeds are so well-executed. The plot is rich, the writing great and the tension taut. And, I wonder if sales of Crisco have skyrocketed, by the way.
The Help Reading Guide
I recently toured the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty, who is among those featured on the Southern Literary Trail (http://www.southernliterarytrail.org). My friend Clotie Graves, who conducts an African-American tour in Jackson, Miss., accompanied me on a recent blue-skies-and-50-degree-temps-January afternoon.
We found the Eudora Welty House, which Welty's parents originally lived in and where she stayed until her death in 2001, to be well-preserved. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and pointed out the updates to the home, which is a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We learned that Welty's Pulitzer Prize, which she won in 1973 for her novel The Optimist's Daughter, was found in an upstairs closet after her death. The house has a sleeping porch, an item that was new to me. The house had thousands of books in it at the time of Welty's death.
I really enjoyed the tour of the garden and learned a lot about the flowers therein. We took pictures near the trestle, which had been replaced and received the approval of a neighbor's cat who startled me by rubbing against my right leg.
I had hoped to go to Jackson State University to view information about author Margaret Walker Alexander, but time did not permit it. I recall reading her book Jubilee in high school and found it to be marvelous. I want to learn as much as I can about her life and that of author Richard Wright, perhaps on my next visit to the Magnolia State.
All three writers are featured on the Southern Literary Trail, which a brochure states is the "country's first tri-state Trail to connect mythic places that influenced great American literature." Joining Mississippi are Georgia and Alabama.
Video: Learning about Eudora Welty's Legacy, 1.2011
About the Author:
Regina L. Burns, M.A., Project+, is an award-winning multimedia editor and journalist, specializing in Black history and African American stories at Harvest Reapers Communications. Her work has been published in Texas Highways magazine, WFAA-TV, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as well as The Commercial Appeal, the Tri-State Defender and The Flyer, among others.