It feels inevitable that the dawn of a new year should inspire thoughts of new beginnings, yet seldom has this annual desire for renewal been so fervent yet so dubious than at the start of 2022, as we look ahead to another season of pandemic and dire weather, actual and political. The following audiobooks may offer some hope in their affirmation that it is never too late to begin again.
“Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over”
If there is an upside of life in the tempestuous ’20s, it’s how this challenging decade has led so many to reassess their lives and careers. Accomplished historian Nell Irvin Painter was at the top of her field when, at the age of 64, she left her Princeton professorship to enroll as an undergraduate art major at Rutgers, followed by the Master of Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, rekindling a long dormant urge to create images and express herself without constraint. A seasoned Black educator long accustomed to the racist and sexist facets of academic life, Painter now encountered ageism as she entered joined her much younger cohort, endeavoring to open her mind and eyes to 21st century aesthetics while rejecting the “complete, unalloyed [expletive]” peddled by some of her instructors. Painter’s rich, engaging narration of “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over” alternates frank, witty observations on her own journey with lessons in art history and thoughtful reflections on the fuses of art in the world, and in her own life. She should try podcasting next: She’s a natural.
“The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention”
On a lighter note is Meredith Maran’s “The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention,” narrated with duly neurotic gusto by Christina Delaine. After a traumatic breakup with her wife of 20 years, the 60-year-old Maran leaves her Oakland home for a copywriting job with a Los Angeles fashion company, finding herself a fish-out-of-water surrounded by trendy, image-conscious millennials as she struggles to make new friends, adapt to the SoCal lifestyle and just maybe love again. Nothing goes as planned, but when did it ever? Delaine gamely veers between tears and laughter, exasperation and wry verve. “Security? Stability? God laughs. So do I.”
If chance and circumstance make us what we are, they can just as easily take our lives in a whole new direction. Such is the case with Willa Drake, the sympathetic heroine of Anne Tyler’s 2018 novel “Clock Dance.” After leapfrogging across the decades through several formative episodes in which her life is shaped, often rather carelessly by the men in it, the reader joins Willa at 61, the widowed mother to two distant sons, now remarried to a stuffy semiretired businessman whose golfing life has dragged her to Arizona, where she seems likely to gently wither into a mild-mannered, air-conditioned dotage. Then an unlikely call from the neighbor of her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise, who is recovering in hospital from a random shooting, draws Willa to Baltimore to look after Denise’s precocious daughter Cheryl and the family dog, Airplane. With subtlety and skill, narrator Kimberly Farr draws us into Willa’s consternation and amused perplexity as she finds herself adopted by a colorful group of deftly portrayed neighbors, and realizes that life may hold some surprises yet. Tyler’s genius for understatement is perfectly conveyed by Farr, whose poise and restraint help to make this an utterly convincing story of second chances.
Listeners who prefer a more fanciful approach to redemption and re-enchantment will enjoy “Harry’s Trees,” by Jon Cohen. Tree-loving Forest Service functionary Harry Crane has given up on life. A year after the tragic death of his wife, he heads into the woods, intending never to emerge alive. Instead, he walks into someone else’s narrative. Young Oriana’s father died on the same day as Harry’s wife, and ever since she has taken refuge in the world of fairy tales, abetted by her local librarian. Harry is clearly destined to play a role in her imaginings, if only to reconcile her to painful realities that she is unable to face. Josh Bloomberg gives a fine reading of this charming grown-up fairy tale, his crisp narration offset by a range of eccentric characters, young and old, and just enough wonder to make the magic real.