Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2019
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Length: 12 hours, 2 minutes
Source: Personal copy
What it is: A novel written as a collection of stories that are all somehow linked Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher in a sleepy Maine town. Some of the stories center around major moments in her life, while others only mention her in passing and instead focus on people who exist in her periphery.
Why I read it: I bought this book a good decade ago because of the buzz, and then it went on to win the 2009 Pulitzer. But it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since! Truth be told, it’s still sitting on my shelf; I ended up buying it on audiobook earlier this year and finally listened to it during my work commute.
What I thought: I know it’s a novel, but since each chapter is more like a short story, the book is much like any other short story collection: some are stronger than others. But since the book is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, the reader definitely gets a feel for the characters from different angles. As the title character, Olive naturally gets featured the most. She is a stubborn woman who had gone through some hardships and mostly sees herself living out her retirement years in peace. But her personality is sometimes too much for people, including her own son, and she can’t seem to understand how she pushes people away. It’s a beautiful book that excels at exploring its characters’ inner worlds.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Publisher/Year: Recorded Books, Inc., 2010
Narrator: Tom Stechschulte
Length: 6 hours, 41 minutes
What it is: An unnamed apocalypse has happened; America is burned and ash is everywhere. Winters are unbearably cold, and the skies are mostly dark. A father and son make their way down the road towards the coast, avoiding bandits, rapists, and cannibals. Everyone is in a fight for survival because resources are quickly dwindling.
Why I read it: I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners; this one won in 2007. Even without the Pulitzer win, I remember that this book had a lot of buzz; it was later turned into a movie (which I still haven’t seen because I wanted to read the book first).
What I thought: We’re so conditioned these days to think of the post-apocalypse in terms of The Walking Dead and the like. This book starts well after the cataclysm and well after the large groups of refugees tried to make their escape; nearly everything has been scavenged and picked through, and many have died off by this point. The book mostly focuses on two characters — the father and son — and they exist for each other. The boy is young and always afraid even though he was born into this new world. He wants to see the good in everything and does not want to be one of the bad guys that they’re always hiding from; his father just wants to keep them alive. It’s a quiet book that focuses on the daily drudgery of survival: always cold, always hungry, always desperate, always on alert. There’s really no plot — mostly because there’s nowhere left to go — and so it becomes a study of humanity existing in the bleakest of circumstances.