Friday, February 25, 2011

One flew east, one flew west

Continuing in the vein of reading the book before seeing the movie (finally saw True Grit and it was terrific!), I'm seeing a play this weekend and wanted to read the book first. Like True Grit, I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when I was a teenager, but my only recollection is not liking it very much because I didn't wish to see the 1975 movie. I was a fairly naïve teenager, and I suspect the book shocked me considerably. I wonder if it was as shocking when it was published -- was Ken Kesey (this site is almost too trippy to actually view anything, but it's the "official" one) the first to expose the sadistic maltreatment of mental health patients?

The story is narrated by Chief Bromden, the longest-serving inmate at the Oregon State Hospital. He entered the hospital after suffering a breakdown related to his tribe's loss of ancestral fishing rights so the federal government could build The Dalles dam on the Columbia River. Chief hallucinates that the lights, air-conditioning, and other modern technology are living, hostile entities, so he's experienced both over-medication and electroshock therapy in his years at the hospital. Chief pretends to be deaf and so he is able to overhear conversations of the medical staff as he goes about his cleaning duties each day. He lives with the other "acutes" and "chronics" in a relatively open ward run by the feared and hated Big Nurse, Nurse Ratched. Acutes are patients that may someday recover enough to leave the hospital, chronics are likely to die there. None escape the dubious ministrations of Ratched.

Into this drab existence comes one Randle Patrick McMurphy, a hyperactive, extroverted gambler and conman who has gamed the system to avoid the last few months at a prison work farm by claiming psychosis. His free spirit poses an immediate threat to Nurse Ratched, and the novel becomes a test of wills (and so much more). McMurphy transforms the men of Big Nurse's ward, and is ultimately defeated by her. But not really ...

The narrator Mark Hammer reads the book, and is pretty darn amazing. He's got a deep, raspy tired voice that captures long-time inmate Chief Bromden perfectly. It sounds almost as if the Chief is just getting used to speaking again after years of muteness, while his bone-deep sadness is palpable. Hammer creates some other memorable characters as well: I particularly liked the professorial snobbishness of a patient named Harding, the stutterings of young Billy Bibbitt, the weak and clueless Dr. Spivey, and the threatening black aide Williams. He pulls off a Swedish accent for the dirt-phobic fishing-boat captain George Sorenson without caricature. With McMurphy, he's chosen volume and a rapid, twangy bravado as the key characterizations, while he gives Nurse Ratched a subdued prissiness that is deeply frightening when you realize what she's capable of.

Hammer takes his cues from the text (which I always like): When we are first introduced to patient Harding, his "hee hee ... hee hee hee" laugh is described as sounding "like a nail coming out of a plank." Can you hear that annoying screechiness? Hammer is spot on with that ingratiating laugh.

The narrator moves the novel along without feeling hurried; the lengthy passages of the Chief's hallucinations don't drag, while the big scenes -- McMurphy's first big confrontation with Ratched (the punch to break the window was shocking), the exuberant fishing trip off the Oregon coast (a scene I fear won't be in the play), the party with the prostitutes, and the final match between the adversaries -- have an immediacy and energy that keep you right in the story. This book never feels like it's 13 hours long.

I'm kind of excited to see the play, and have now placed the movie on my wish list. I think I'm old enough now to appreciate it. ;-)

How cool is this online "fugitive fact file" from Hennepin County Public Library, which provides the citation for the title rhyme (even though it includes a typo, which I've corrected here):

Wire, briar, limber-lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east, one flew west
One flew over the cuckoo's nest.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Narrated by Mark Hammer
Recorded Books, 1992. 13:15

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stone walls do not a prison make

I was so enamored of Catherine Fisher's Incarceron when I read it last year that I spent some time poking around some Scottish bookstores last June looking for its sequel, Sapphique. It wasn't in stock, since it was two years old, so I settled for Philip Reeve's sequel to Fever Crumb, A Web of Air (which I haven't found time to read yet ... the perennial problem of books you own v. books you borrow). Anyway, back to Sapphique ...

Incarceron is a sentient prison, created by a group of intellectuals to humanely house their society's wrong-doers. Their idea was that prisoners would be free to live, educate themselves, toil at satisfying work ... except for the fact that they can't leave, it's a paradise. "Outside" -- the non-criminal world -- the society has decided that it will live without technology (even though it has the capability) in an idealized 17th century called the Protocol. But Incarceron is not humane, it's survival of the fittest. And Protocol is a stultified surface, beneath which is corruption and struggles for power.

In Incarceron, Claudia -- daughter of the warden of the prison -- tries to avoid an arranged marriage. Through a crystal key, she finds that she is able to communicate with an inmate named Finn, and she slowly comes to believe that he is the rightful heir to the Protocol's throne. He successfully escapes Incarceron, but leaves his best friends Keiro and Attia behind. At the end of the first novel, Claudia's father disappears into Incarceron as Finn escapes it.

In Sapphique, Finn attempts to establish his claim to the throne, while trying to solve the puzzle of helping his friends escape the prison. The inmates believe in the myth of someone named Sapphique, the only person who -- prior to Finn -- managed to escape Incarceron. As Finn toils to adjust to life Outside with the help of Claudia and her faithful mentor Jared, Keiro and Attia search for Sapphique's glove -- reportedly the item that helped him escape. But Incarceron knows what they are up to, which makes their quest very dangerous.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I like reading connected novels, but I do find myself frustrated by authors who assume I can remember all the salient plot details of the early volume(s). With Sapphique, I felt like I was flailing through much of the beginning. The novel's action really doesn't get going for quite some time -- there's a lot of Keiro and Attia working their way past various Incarceronic pitfalls, and a lot more of Claudia and Finn trying to outmaneuver their enemies at court. And then there's a seriously trippy ending. I also listened to it in a very leisurely fashion (taking two weeks), which is really not a good idea. The author says that her idea was too big for one book, so she made it into two. I'm thinking that it was more like a book and a half. There's a lot of filler in here.

Considering how many children's and teen audiobooks I listen to, I'm surprised I've never heard Kim Mai Guest read before. She has a youthful sounding voice, but reads skillfully. She can create individual characters who sound natural, and she does a good job with this novel. The characterizations seem pretty spot on: Claudia is described as haughty and Guest's interpretation is perfect, Keiro is a loud braggart, Jared is collected and intelligent and his physical pain is clear in his voice. Her narration isn't flashy, she competently guides us through this complicated story.

This is my tenth audiobook this year, which means I'm halfway to Obsessed at Teresa's Reading Corner's Audiobook Challenge. It also puts me two books ahead of last year's listening at this point (with almost 14 hours more time ... not that I'm keeping track or anything). I'm like those kids who grab their Summer Reading gameboard on the opening day and fill in all the spots right away.

Sapphique by Catherine Fisher
Narrated by Kim Mai Guest
Listening Library, 2010. 11:58.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fox-color eyes

The author Carolyn Chute was so outraged at the response to her 1985 novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, that she "finished" it ten years later -- changing it slightly and then writing a lengthy afterword that explained why she had to. Essentially, readers misinterpreted her book -- believing that it included father-daughter incest, rape, violence and backwoods ignorance -- and she felt she had to set the record straight. Which begs the question: Are you writing a novel or a political polemic? I heard Chute's afterword upon completing the "finished" version, and now I know: It's a polemic. Those of us who don't like her novel hate the poor. We as readers aren't supposed to bring our own experiences or opinions to a novel, I guess.

The author (who seems to live off the grid) doesn't have a website, but here are two articles about her: from 1985 and 2009.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine are a sprawling family of backwoodsmen, the women who love (endure?) them, and the many children engendered from that love (there are so many mentions of fox-color eyes in this novel that I wondered if orange irises are a sign of inbreeding). They construct fungible family units, squabble with various levels of violence, work at low-paying, dangerous jobs, vaguely threaten their neighbors; but they live proudly without public interference -- education, welfare, etc.

One of the women is earth-mother Roberta -- who seems to have a baby annually while never revealing their father(s). Except for that baby she has by her nephew, Beal Bean. Roberta's babies are contentedly dirty and Roberta tends a sumptuous garden. Another woman is Earlene Pomerleau (the girl who may or may not have had an incestuous relationship with her father ... I ask you: If you put a father and daughter ambiguously napping in bed together in the very first scene of your novel are you surprised that readers think it's incest? Really?). Earlene's family lives across the dirt road from the Beans, and she is raised to believe that the Pomerleaus are morally and intellectually superior. Teenage Earlene escapes her home after a bitter fight with her father (he washes her mouth out with soap after he's caught her smoking) and takes refuge in Roberta's house. Where Beal forces (?) her to have sex with him. (Another scene that Chute takes her readers to task over: Earlene never says no, she points out.) Against her will, Earlene has become a Bean herself, to her everlasting self-hatred.

OK, so maybe I don't like to read novels about poor people (I concede, all that squalor depresses me). But I really don't like to read novels where women are forced to have sex, threatened with violence, or unable to take advantage of social services that might save their or their children's lives because the men in their lives physically and emotionally intimidate them. I didn't like the book, yes. But I didn't think the author (who is, of course, entitled to write whatever she likes) was being deliberately provocative until she demanded that I interpret the book her way. Then, it felt like she was creating the most outlandish characters and situations in order to shock me, and then insisting that my shock stems from my tiresome middle-class values.

I'm tempted to give her a virtual finger, but instead I'll move on to the audiobook.

Chute tells her story -- saga-like, about 20 years pass in short episodic chapters -- in first person narrative from Earlene and an omniscient (pro-Bean) third person. Joyce Bean reads Earlene's sections and William Dufris is the other narrator. I've heard Dufris read three children's books (find the links at Audiobook Jukebox!) and Joyce Bean (referring to her by her last name only is confusing) is new to me. Dufris is a revelation -- his reading persona is completely different from the goofy, squeaky way I've heard him read before. He's mature, sonorous even and there's a slight edge as he tells us about the Beans that's a wee bit disturbing. Joyce Bean is also good -- she takes Earlene from gawky tween (sleeping -- just sleeping! -- with her beloved daddy) to catatonic teen mother to a tired, yet slightly flirtatious adult at the book's conclusion.

Both narrators tie on a Maine accent -- easily, consistently, and without caricature. I particularly liked how everyone pronounced Earlene -- more like Ere-lean. Somehow, it made the name less pedestrian to me.

The novel is an excellent candidate for audio (I know I'd have abandoned it if I'd been reading) for the most part. At the very beginning of Dufris' narration (not the beginning of the book), I could have used a genealogical chart: character names were flying around fast and furious and my head was spinning as I tried to keep track. Most of the characters are abandoned as the novel proceeds, so I guess Chute is trying to give a flavor of the chaos of a Bean family gathering. Once it's clear that we're following Roberta and her brood, Beal, and Earlene, the listening is easy. Well, except for all that poverty. And then that lecture that comes afterwards.

I wonder why it took another 13 years for the audio version to be published.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute
Narrated by Joyce Bean and William Dufris
Brilliance Audio, 2008. 7:00

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Box it up

Have you ever had a danger box? According to Blue Balliett, this is a box where you store stuff that might be (or have been) dangerous: blown-up firecrackers and old shotgun shells, maybe a match or two. Of course, those smart readers who enjoy Balliett's enticing puzzle novels might also figure out that a danger box is where you might store a radical idea or two, or maybe your fears -- safely tucked away. Zoomy Chamberlain has a danger box and what's inside is a real treasure.

Balliett's latest novel, The Danger Box, is not about those three Chicago Laboratory School sleuths, Petra, Calder and Tommy. Instead, we move about 70 miles east across Lake Michigan to the small town of Three Oaks, Michigan and meet 12-year-old Zoomy, who lives quietly with his paternal grandparents. Zoomy's got a touch of OCD and a case of pathological myopia. He controls a world that he can't see very clearly by keeping lists using a purple pen. He's happy, if a bit lonely. Then his long-absent father suddenly and frighteningly re-appears in his life, driving a stolen truck, and leaving with his parents -- for sale in their antiques/knickknack store -- a box holding a very old notebook. While Zoomy's grandparents soon realize that the notebook has been stolen as well, they allow Zoomy to take a look at it -- inspired as he is by the fact that someone else kept lists in a notebook like he does.

Zoomy's research takes him to his local library, where he meets a "firecracker" of a girl named Lorrol (embarrassed by her mom's spelling, yet she likes that her name is a palindrome). Together they figure out how valuable their find is. (And to preserve the novel's secret, I shall only provide this link.) Of course, since the item was stolen by Zoomy's father, there is someone else interested in the notebook. And that person might not be on the right side of the law either.

I like Balliett's book-smart, nerdy tweens, and I do love an art-themed mystery. I like that her characters are mixed-race without the story being about that. Zoomy is white-Mexican and Lorrol is black-Jewish and both belong to the self-formed "unknown parent club." The reality-based art objects are presented in an accessible way, and I always get the feeling from reading that I could solve a famous art disappearance too! Both Zoomy and Lorrol seem really young for 12-year-olds; which isn't necessarily bad, since I think Balliett's books are perfect for skilled younger readers.

The book has three narrators: Zoomy -- telling us the story in first person, Lorrol -- who reads issues of a free newsletter called "The Gas Gazette" (which becomes rather tiresome actually), and an adult male, who provides third-person information on a mysterious Mr. Zip and what happens when his self-aggrandizing plan to return the stolen treasure to where it belongs goes terribly wrong. And yes, there are three readers (hooray!): Alex Wyse, Veronika Dominczyk (pronouned duh-MEN-chick), and Jason Culp.

Wyse is very good. He's got a youthful-sounding, reedy voice that projects Zoomy's fears and anxieties as well as his growing confidence and excitement at what he discovers. He reads with a nice, varied pace and a childlike naïveté that sounded completely genuine to me. There's a little bit of what I'll call "New York" punchiness to his delivery (and I'm at a complete loss to describe it -- plosives produced further back in the mouth maybe? [but I could be talking nonsense]) that bothered me at first, but then I relaxed and allowed him to tell me the story.

Dominczyk has the tough job -- reading those slightly pedantic newsletters, but we don't hear from her that often. And I do appreciate that another narrator is reading these excerpts.

Culp reads his sections like he's doing a movie-preview-type voiceover ("in a world ..." -- hey, maybe he's replaced this guy!). Serious and manly, he hits the right note here -- of greedy foolishness and craven self-interest. His deep voice manifests the world's scary adults for Zoomy.

I downloaded this book because it was in mp3 format instead of WMA -- which means it can come through to my new MacBook Pro. (Yes, I realize that WMA dominate library downloadables -- that's what I've got the work PC for [wink].) Now I just need to get the Apple product (Mac) to talk to the non-Apple product (Sansa) via I-Tunes, so I can listen to those books on CD I've copied (for personal use only!) onto my computer.

Apple's a cult, I've decided.

Anyway, I probably wouldn't have requested this book if I hadn't been experimenting. And I'm glad I got it.

The Danger Box by Blue Balliett
Narrated by Alex Wyse, Veronika Dominczyk and Jason Culp
Scholastic Audio, 2010. 5:50 (although the catalog entry for the CD version says 6:15)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A note on magic

Well, all I can say is thank goodness for Bartimaeus! A good 12 hours with that cheeky djinni and any midwinter blues are just kicked on down the road. Yes, Bartimaeus is back and he's better than ever. Author Jonathan Stroud has written a prequel (of sorts) to Bartimaeus' 19th century London adventures, but The Ring of Solomon is a completely new, stand-alone story.

It's thousands of years earlier, during the reign of King Solomon (950 BCE) as he was building Jerusalem into the powerhouse of the Mideast. Solomon has a good 17 magicians at his beck and call, and those magicians employ an army of various magical creatures -- imps, foliots, djinn, afrits, and mariads -- to do his bidding. One of these slaves is Bartimaeus. And, per usual, he's cranky about his enslavement and uses his not-inconsiderable skills to evade work and make jokes at the expense of Solomon's many wives (a hippo impersonation figures prominently). Eventually, his insubordination results in eternal confinement in a sealed bottle.

Solomon's power comes from the ring he wears. And when he threatens the beautiful Queen of Sheba with invasion because she refuses to become one of his wives, the Queen sends off one of her loyal female guard, Asmira, to assassinate Solomon and obtain the ring. Asmira frees Bartimaeus from the bottle and commands him (very carefully, as we know that the djinni will use a misspoken spell to avoid work and escape slavery and destroy his master ... he's done it before) to help her with her mission.

Is it possible to not love this guy? His storytelling skills are unmatched, I think -- with his clever observations, his undeniable sense of irony (except when it comes to himself), and those funny, funny footnotes. Bartimaeus meets his match in Asmira -- something I don't recollect feeling when I read the original trilogy (third installment four years ago) -- and I think he knows it. There's also a splendid adventure to be shared -- full of action, humor, and even some thought-provoking ideas on the pitfalls of power. Stroud can keep writing these as long as he likes. (I'm not so enamored of the other novel of his that I listened to.)

Before I kept track of the books I'd listened to via this blog, I did listen to Simon Jones read both the second and third books in the Bartimaeus trilogy. It's the kind of marriage of character and narrator that pretty much means I won't ever eye-read any further installments. It's Mr. Jones or nothing. His nasal delivery is just perfect for the sarcastic, irreverent djinni with his snarky footnotes. He reads the footnotes with a change of voice that almost always lets you know that you're hearing the small print. The novel switches from first to third person (both telling Bartimaeus' part of the story [and I have never quite worked out what circumstances cause the djinni to choose third person]), and Jones makes a slight change in his delivery -- less supercilious and condescending. Sincere, one might say ... except that sincerity is out of the question with Bartimaeus.

Part of the novel is Asmira's story, which Jones provides yet another subtle change to alert you; not surprisingly, he gives this a much more straightforward reading. I confess that I do find him a little high and breathy and overly femmy when he reads Asmira's dialog -- which does have the capacity to annoy me -- but I am so enamored of Jones' overall narration that I'm willing to overlook this.

Jones keeps the lengthy novel moving along reading crisply and cleanly. He revs the pace up for the action sequences, but a listener never feels rushed -- just occasionally breathless (that's a good thing).

It might be interesting to listen to Jones read an adult novel (not the Hitchhiker's Guide ... frankly, I'm not a fan), just to see how differently he uses his prodigious narrating skills. Add it to the list [sigh].

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud
Narrated by Simon Jones
Listening Library, 2010. 12:38

Monday, February 7, 2011

Not one cent for scenery!

I'm not sure I would have appreciated The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America before I lived out West. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest is not far from Portland, but until I read this book I had no idea who he was. Timothy Egan, a journalist who covered "western issues" for the New York Times, has written a fascinating history of the beginnings of the U.S. Forest Service, the birth of the idea that some places should be preserved and not mined/harvested/settled until nothing is left, and a thrilling description of a huge fire and the men who fought it. And, on top of everything else? It shows us that it is possible to be both a Republican and a Progressive! Imagine that! (I will note, though, the speaker of this blog's title was also a Republican, Representative Joseph Cannon, who didn't exactly agree with Roosevelt's progressiveness.)

When he was a young man, Gifford Pinchot met the naturalist John Muir, which sealed his love of the wilderness. He went on to pursue a career as a forester because it enabled him to be outdoors. He met fellow nature enthusiast Theodore Roosevelt, and -- once Roosevelt became president -- they worked together to create the Forest Service, which -- essentially -- grabbed as much western land as it possibly could in order to protect it from the wealthy individuals and corporations who were interested only in what profits they could get from the ore beneath the ground, the trees that covered the magnificent mountains, and even the railroads that would haul the workers in and the riches out. Cities and towns were just plopped down in the middle of the wilderness to accommodate the men working in the mines, forests and railroads. One of these towns was Wallace, Idaho.

Pinchot and his wealthy family (whose money came from clear-cutting half of Pennsylvania) helped found the Yale School of Forestry, and soon after Pinchot began recruiting its students to come manage the forests out west. But few of these men knew how to fight a forest fire, and their budgets -- no longer protected by Roosevelt (who had left office) and Pinchot (who had been fired) --had been decimated. It's August 1910. In the Bitterroot mountain range, rain had been nonexistent, but lightning strikes were frequent. Small fires were breaking out all over and the Forest Service was keeping things under control. But then this freak windstorm blew in and the tinder-dry trees and undergrowth went up in a huge conflagration that grew to be the size of the state of Connecticut (three million acres). The foresters had no chance, and neither did the town of Wallace. It is astonishing to me how few people died (estimated at around 85). Check out this Powerpoint presentation which has lots of great pictures.

Egan tells the story of the fire by quickly moving from one story to another:
  • The last train out of Wallace -- full of wealthy men, when it was supposed to be reserved for women and children -- doesn't know which way to go to escape the fire;
  • A group of forest fighters -- including two Italian immigrants -- who seek shelter in a mineshaft but are burned alive;
  • Another group who also rode out the firestorm in a mineshaft, but who all miraculously survive (including their leader, the charismatic Ed Pulaski);
  • The Buffalo Soldiers (who had fought with TR at San Juan Hill) who rescued the residents of another town;
  • A woman who had hired on as a camp cook who escaped with the fire at her heels;
  • A young forester, Joseph Halm, who had been declared dead and his obituary published when he staggered into town days after the fire.
It's riveting stuff. I really enjoyed everything that Egan offers -- the story of the friendship of Pinchot and Roosevelt, how the initial excitement of the conservation movement got bogged down in politics, the character studies of the westerners who survived (or not) the Big Burn, and the aftermath -- including how it took the Forest Service another 75 years to realize that they shouldn't put out every fire that gets started on their lands. I like nonfiction like this -- nonfiction that tells a good story.

Robertson Dean narrates the book. He has a great newscaster-type of voice (in a good way), deep and resonant with a lot of quiet authority. He keeps Egan's multi-stranded narrative going at a steady clip, and when quotations appear or dialog is called for he gives the speaker an appropriate voice. I have heard Dean read a children's book once and -- from listening here -- it is clear that he is much better suited to adult titles.

I have been meaning to get to Mt. St. Helens ever since the Visitors Center on the edge of the crater opened 14 (eek!) years ago. At least now when I see the signs telling me that I'm entering the Gifford Pinchot Forest I'll know who he is!

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan
Narrated by Robertson Dean
Brilliance Audio, 2009. 10:05