When it comes to choosing audiobooks, it isn’t just about the author. Audiobook fans will follow a favorite narrator for years, exploring titles and genres they might not otherwise consider. For many listeners, Anna Fields has been one such favorite narrator.
Many will be familiar with the story of Fields, whose real name was Kate Fleming, and how she died when her basement studio in Seattle’s Madison Valley neighborhood was flooded during a torrential downpour in late 2006. They may also know of how, in the wake of this tragedy, her partner, Charlene Strong, was initially denied access to Fleming at the hospital, and was later rebuffed by a funeral director. Strong’s story helped connect a face to the plight of same-sex couples, contributing to the passage of Washington’s first domestic-partnership law in the spring of 2007.
To audiobook fans, Fields was the assured and versatile voice behind more than 250 titles. Chances are you’ve already listened to her, but if not, here are some highlights from her varied oeuvre for you to try.
The first impression one gets of Fields’ sonorous alto might be a certain homespun earnestness, unaffected and direct. This almost-transparent style of narration is far more difficult to pull off than it seems, and it works especially well in instructional or self-help books, where Fields easily slips into the role of your smart friend, a trusted and sympathetic expert who will give it to you straight. Try “The Tao of Warren Buffett,” by Mary Buffett and David Clark, to see what I mean. The folksy, aphoristic style of this brief investment guide is put across perfectly by Fields’ no-nonsense delivery, making this a rewarding listen — even for readers who balk at typically jargon-heavy books on topics like personal finance.
Fields’ balanced reading style conveys a blend of authority and sensitivity that’s invaluable for bringing information-packed history books to life, such as Kati Marton’s “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World.” Fields subtly inflects the diverse personalities of Hungarian expat scientists, photographers, filmmakers and writers in ways that capture the dramatic urgency of the times without tipping into distracting mimicry or melodrama. Her deft pacing and modulation effortlessly deliver a mountain of historical detail that might have made for very tiresome listening in less expert hands. Together, Marton and Fields reveal the profound cultural and historical influence of Budapest, a city often overshadowed by London, Paris and Berlin in the popular imagination.
How delightful, then, to turn to Fields’ fiction titles and find this restrained, deliberate baseline suddenly bursting forth into a panoply of distinct, authentically cadenced characters from around the globe. Start with her Audie Award-winning narration of Ruth Ozeki’s 2003 novel, “All Over Creation.” This delightfully offbeat story revolves around the improbable convergence of aging farmer Lloyd and his issei wife, Momoko; their estranged daughter, Yumi, and her three children; Yumi’s childhood friend, Cass, and old flame Elliot, who is now a corporate sellout; plus a motley crew of young environmental activists — who call themselves The Seeds of Resistance — that rolls into Liberty Falls, Idaho, to raise the collective consciousness about the evils of bioengineered potatoes. Fields creates distinct, convincing voices for all these characters and more, masterfully investing every quirk and cranny of the text with specificity and life. Her dialect work for the not-so-fluent Momoko is especially impressive, although perhaps less so to listeners who have already sampled Fields’ skill with Japanese language and inflection in her narration of Ozeki’s earlier satiric novel, “My Year of Meats,” another truly inspired performance.
Fields brought this same dramatic range to many of the most respected authors of our day, including Louise Erdrich, Joyce Carol Oates and Ann Patchett. I particularly like Fields’ rendition of Jane Smiley’s “The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton,” a rollicking epic focusing on the struggles between slavers and abolitionist “Free Staters” in the antebellum West. The best feature of Smiley’s thoroughly enjoyable tale is the voice of her sharp-tongued, spirited heroine; Fields absolutely nails this, mixing the mild twang of what was then the wild hinterlands of Illinois with plenty of grit and moral backbone.
Other outstanding Fields narrations include such varied performances as her elegant, lyrical reading of Beryl Markham’s classic memoir “West with the Night”; a disarmingly frank and funny reading of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Invisible Monsters” that manages to anchor his deliberately outrageous novel in reality; and her sweet, jaunty embodiment of the eccentric cast of Seattle author Stephanie Kallos’ tale of second chances, “Broken for You.” These only hint at her range, which included space opera, taut suspense, supernatural mystery and romance. One of Fields’ last recordings was among several witty readings of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ romantic comedies – “Natural Born Charmer.” In page after hilarious page, we can hear Fields letting her narrative horses run, having a blast doing what she loved and did so well, and turning a good book into a terrific audiobook.