A little background:
I have a thing for stories, as you might know. And as much as I like to read, I love to hear a story, too. My mom would read to me incessantly when I was little, and long after I knew how to read to myself, she continued to read aloud to me. She read, late at night and her head nodding with fatigue, through many series--Little House, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew. It must have been exhausting for her, after long long days at work.
But how I loved it! We shared the story together, discovering it, though in a way it also seemed almost to spring naturally from her as she spoke the words. I especially loved how her voice wrapped around the characters, made the pictures move in new ways, different from the way the pictures formed when I read to myself. Listening to those stories was pure pleasure.
I still love to hear a story. It's probably why I am an NPR addict, and I am usually a rapt listener to anyone willing telling me a narrative of their life, or even what happened to them that day. I love to hear it.
So it's not surprising that I have affection for audiobooks. I may have resisted the ipod for years past its introduction, but at the prospect of hearing podcasts of This American Life, and the Moth, and StoryCorps, well--I caved this winter, and now I'm often found wearing my earbuds, a story whispering into my ears.
The past few months I've been mining itunes for good audiobooks, and listening to a mixture of oldies and some new, more pulpy stuff. Heart of Darkness was amazing, real and thick and haunting in a way that, shamefully I admit, it wasn't before I heard it read to me. After Conrad, I wanted to go for something lighter, with the thought that it would be good to listen to while doing chores or exercising. My choice was James Patterson's Beach Road, which definitely falls into the pulpy junk pile, was disappointing and grungy.
So, in an attempt to find a middle ground, I stumbled across a mystery by Kate Wilhelm, a writer I'd never heard of before. Of course, I’ve since come to find out that she is prolific, talented, and lauded by many. I’m thrilled to know I will be able to explore her books for a long time to come.
For now, I am into Wilhelm’s books featuring character Barbara Holloway. Just as I did when I was a little girl, I still enjoy a series of stories. Mysteries are especially great in a series. While they can be cute and fun, a series can also leave lots of room for development of character and place. More importantly, they leave room for ambiguity and growth, and maybe that's why I like them so well. That, and the fact that my mom and I can exchange them between ourselves and have our own little book club.
Anyway, Kate Wilhelm's series about Barbara Holloway are like pearls on a string, each one smooth and well-constructed from the inside out, glowing. I started accidentally in the middle of the series, with The Unbidden Truth. Read by Anna Fields, it was engaging, lively, haunting. I was hooked.
I say hooked, and I mean it. As I listened, I was almost addicted to hearing what would happen next. In particular, I was drawn to this narrator, Anna Fields. Like my mother, her voice made the story move, wrapping itself into the plot and the characters so that it really did feel as though the story was being spun exactly as I was listening.
I was so taken with Anna Fields’s warm and mysterious voice and the way she gave life to Wilhelm's characters, that beyond finding other books in the series (which I did), I wanted to see what else she had given voice to.
A Google later, I learned that Anna Fields was the stagename for Kate Fleming. Like Kate Wilhelm, Kate Fleming was prolific, narrating over 200 books. And clearly, she was talented. She was asked to narrate the 9/11 Commission, and awarded honors from her peers. I also learned, with heartache, that she died in 2006, tragically trapped in her Seattle studio during a flash flood.
All of this background leads me to confess this:
In some strange way, for the past week or so, I've been feeling a certain loneliness knowing she is gone. I was puzzled over this melancholy, but I finally put a label to it: it's that I miss Kate Fleming. I know, I know--I didn’t know her at all, she is a disembodied voice in my head, and yet, I miss her. The intimacy of audio can foster that kind of connection, I suppose. I think of the way she could get inside a character, and get inside my head, and I know that the world has lost someone special.
Is it possible to miss someone you didn't know? Perhaps.
I suspect I have this lonely, loss-filled feeling about her for another reason. Because while her voice is firmly in my head, I have the sickening outside knowledge that at the same time she was making those detailed recordings, her fate was rushing toward her in a way she couldn’t know. She is stuck there in time, unknowing, but vibrant and powerful with stories each time I listen.
We are all like Kate Fleming, in a way. We are firmly in our own reality, with the voice in our own heads shaping and moving the story of our daily life forward. And it feels so permanent, like something recorded and tangible, something to be accessed again and again. But it’s not. For each of us rides on an unstoppable river--or that river flows toward us, I don't know. But I do know that the permanence of things is an illusion. Like anyone else, I shove that knowledge down each day to some hidden place so I can "get on with life." I only recognize the pull of the river again, if only for a moment, when I encounter beautiful and fleeting, something perfect and special. Something like a perfect whisper in my ears as I'm lulled into another storyland.
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