Friday, June 24, 2011

That's oil, boy

When I listened to Here in Harlem, I realized how long it had been since I had listened to a book read by Dion Graham. Over a year! Yikes! I have quickly remedied that (and I mean quickly, I listened to this 13-hour thriller in just five days) with Black Water Rising. This is a juicy bit of historical fiction, written by Attica Locke, that takes place during the go-go 80s (1981) in the fastest-growing city in the U.S. at the time, oil-rich Houston, Texas.

Jay Porter is living in the go-go 80s without experiencing much go-go. He's an African American storefront lawyer with an expectant wife and not much else. His current client is a prostitute with a civil suit over a neck injury received on the job; Jay's hoping to get $10,000 in damages from the fairly high-profile john. Ten years ago, Jay was an idealistic radical, organizing black students to protest for equality and justice. Until the FBI raid, the betrayal, and his trial for inciting violence. Thanks to one black juror -- and the support of a small black congregation led by his future father-in-law -- Jay avoids conviction on the false charge. But the experience changed him, Jay doesn't rock the boat anymore and he lives with a certain amount of fear and despair.

On August 1, Jay is out celebrating his wife's birthday -- on the cheap -- with a "cruise" (in a rusty scow owned by a relative of a non-paying client) down Houston's Buffalo Bayou. They are almost enjoying the humid night when they hear a woman's cry for help, followed by some gunshots. Jay and Bernie watch, horrified, as a woman tumbles into the murky water. Urged by Bernie -- but against his better judgment -- Jay dives in and rescues the woman. She refuses to tell them anything and when they insist on dropping her off at a police station, she seems to be waiting on the steps for them to drive away.

And thus begins a classic Man-Who-Knew-Too-Much story of a man whose innocent action drags him reluctantly into a morass of greed, corruption, racial inequities, and Texas politics. Locke builds her story slowly but inexorably -- with red herrings, side tracks, and plenty of humid, threatening atmosphere -- and when the complex twists and turns finally seem to be clearly unraveling, she tosses in a few more surprises. I listened so steadily because her story was pay-close-attention complex and breathlessly exciting.

I really enjoyed her hero, Jay, a good man battered by his personal history. He's almost paralyzed by it, it colors everything. You're not quite sure he can set it behind him, even if it means his very survival. I appreciated the insights into black America in the 1970s and 1980s -- I am ignorant of how inequitable life still was for blacks (particularly in the South?) during my own white, privileged young adulthood.

Dion Graham was ... well, great (no surprise). He read the novel in a tense near-whisper, tinged with Jay's hopelessness. As Jay gets closer and closer to understanding what happened on the Bayou and why, more strength and confidence can be heard in Graham's narration. A mouthy, chain-smoking reporter named Lon (female) helps Jay solve the last pieces of the puzzle, and their conversations almost approach banter. (Jay does not banter, even with an old lover.) And when he embraces his wife and nuzzles her neck in the last minutes of the story, speaking to his unborn child, there's a sense a peace that you haven't heard at all in his voice. Even though we're not sure how things are going to ultimately work out, Jay has emerged from his fearful isolation ready to make change again.

The novel has a large cast of characters and Graham successfully voices them. For the most part, he avoids a caricaturish Texas twang (except when the character needs it, like his prostitute-client's john), instead giving the story's corporate and legal bigwigs voices of strength and command. He creates a wide range of voices for the novel's African American characters as well. One in particular has a voice "coated in nicotine" which Graham uses as his cue for a deep rustiness.

Graham also paces this novel well, keeping it calm and serene in places and then picking up speed and tension in his voice for its many action sequences. The audiobook uses a driving, percussive piece of music between chapters that continues briefly once the narrative starts again that was actually quite effective. The music varied enough (or perhaps the chapters were long enough) that it didn't sound repetitive. All in all, it's a good production.

I shouldn't be surprised anew how good Graham is as a narrator (he won this year's Audie for teen books [a book I'd eye-read]). Aside from his work in children's literature, I've mostly listened to mysteries/suspense. I need to branch out. After all, he has. I've had Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which Graham narrates) in my possession (not just on my hold list) for some time now, but can't bring myself to listen. There's no logical reason, I'll probably love it; I loved What is the What. (I finally copied Genius onto my computer last night, so I think I'm closer to listening ...)

[The photo of oil seeping up from the ground is from near Korňa, Kysucké Beskydy, Western Carpathians, Slovakia. It was taken by Branork and was retrieved through Wikimedia Commons.]

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
Narrated by Dion Graham
HarperAudio, 2009. 13:30

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Not-very-nice girls

So, does a book with a dead teenager (coming back to tell us about it) qualify as "dark" teen literature? Since the teenager in question sees the error of her ways in the days following her death, does Before I Fall get shelved away from the ones with depravity, depression, drugs and dystopia? Personally, I found Lauren Oliver's characters' behavior to be equally as horrifying as those in the recently banned Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, yet I wonder if this book gets a pass from those who wish to protect their teenagers from life's unpleasantness. (Sherman Alexie's book was also a source of some controversy near me this year, and here is a teen reader's response to that!)

Sorry ... distracted today for some reason! Must be the sunshine.

Samantha Kingston and her three BFFs -- Lindsay, Ally, and Elody -- rule at Thomas Jefferson High School. Theirs is a reign of terror, however, as their classmates as well as the lowly students in the years behind them freeze or flee if they approach. Their cruel comments about dress, makeup, food, boys, pretty much anything can doom a student to a Siberia of loserdom and jokes at their expense. It's Friday, February 12 -- Cupid Day at her school, where Valentine roses are delivered -- and the four girls have prepared a doozy for Juliet Sykes (dubbed Psycho by Lindsay, the meanest of the mean girls): "Maybe next year, but probably not."

This is the evening Sam will lose her virginity to her heartthrob boyfriend, Rob. She and her posse drink heavily in order to prepare and decide to attend a party at another classmate's (and loser) house. Here they get even more drunk, and when they get back in Lindsay's car on the icy night, they crash and Sam -- riding shotgun (seatbelt?) -- dies.

No loss, you say. Sam is a really, really unpleasant character, topped only in her cruelty by her friend Lindsay. Yet we (and Sam) are destined to spend seven more days together as Sam gets to relive her last day until she gets it right. Yet her quest has neither the humor nor the sweetness of two other versions (without the dead part) of this story with which you might be familiar. We get some background on the girls and some of their victims, and Sam comes to realize the impact of her behavior on others (I hope that's not a spoiler), but for me, it was too late. I didn't like Sam and couldn't identify with her journey to redemption. Because, after all, it's her redemption, the people who have suffered her cruelties remain damaged. I kept asking, What about them? For me, Sam never really changed: It remains all about her.

Because of this, I found the book too long -- by the fifth day I was ready for it to be over. By the fifth day I also knew what needed to happen, so Sam's subsequent forays out into the cold and ice to change the events became repetitive. A new love interest pops up as well, and Sam's swooniness over this got tiresome.

But I must remind myself [I have to do this every darn day ;-) ] -- I'm not a teenager, and I have no doubt that teenagers are sucking this down whole.

The audiobook is narrated by Sarah Drew. She has a lovely teen voice and does a great job with the book's characters. It's not easy to create four different natural-sounding teen girl voices in a conversation, but Drew pulls it off (resorting to a Valley Girl-ish sound only once). Her boys are a little more problematic -- particularly boyfriend Rob, who sounds so idiotic (and drunk even when he's not) that you wonder from the outset what on earth Sam's attraction to him is.

Drew reads the story with lots of variations in pace and volume and she seems to really understand Sam's contradictions. Her gradual awakening to the horrors that she has inflicted on others comes through in Drew's narration and as the story reaches its climax, Drew is not afraid of showing us strong emotions.

I'm placing this book in my "dead teenagers" category. Even though I didn't really like it, I appreciate that Oliver took another approach -- not creating a character too good to be with us on earth. On the other hand, it's very hard to enjoy a book where you can't like or even identify with its heroine.

[The image of Kristin Chenoweth (pink) teaching Idina Menzel (green) how to be Pop-you-ooh-lar is from Wicked Number 1 Greatest Fansite.]

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Narrated by Sarah Drew
Listening Library, 2010. 12:26

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Audiobook Week: Audiobook Resources

And Audiobook Week comes to a close:

Where do you learn about great audiobook titles? Find reviews? Buy your audiobooks? Share your secrets with the rest of us!

I love the Audiobook Jukebox when I want to see what else a favorite narrator has recorded -- it's so great having all that information in one place. I also appreciate the ease with which I can find out what others thought of a book I've recently listened to.

When I'm looking for a new audiobook, I’m pretty much bowling alone with my library catalog and Oregon’s downloadable options. I’m simply not going to buy a book to listen to (since I don’t ever anticipate wanting to listen again). I think I consciously select audiobooks three ways:

  • I look at review journals to see if there’s something specifically audiobookish I should keep an eye out for, and those titles go on the ever-expanding TBLT list.
  • I’ve listened to a new-to-me narrator, liked him or her, and gone in search of more of their work.
  • There’s a series (usually) that’s so boffo in audio (Harry Potter, Bloody Jack), I’m going to stick with that medium for each book I pick up. For example, my library’s been a little poky in purchasing new audiobooks lately, and I felt I just could not wait to read Scott Westerfeld’s second installment in his steampunk World War I series, Behemoth. I really missed Alan Cumming (I kept hearing his voice), so I’m going to stick it out this fall until Goliath arrives on CD at my library (even though I’ve seen that ARCs were passed out at BEA).

Otherwise, my choices are more serendipitous (which is not how I am in print … I’m not a browser). If my bookgroup’s books are available in audio, I might listen. I’m a big mystery reader, so occasionally I’ll pick up the “next” book in audio instead of print. Sometimes I actually browse the library shelves and just randomly pick up a book. Amazing!

Thanks to Devourer of Books for hosting the audiobook love all week long … and for Jen's thoughtful comments on my blog (and I presume everyone else’s). Keep on listening … audiobooks aren't just for June!

Audiobook Week: Audiobooks for the Uninitiated

Celebrating Audiobooks Week with Devourer of Books:

Whether you just started listening or have a long history with audiobooks, you probably have some suggestions for those new to audio whether for narrators, titles, or ways to experience the medium. Write a post, make a list, get creative.

Oh, “get creative” always makes me seize up! I used to say that I could enjoy some narrators even if they were reading the phone book. I wonder, though, if I’ve listened to so many books that this is no longer the case. I mean, I love Jim Dale and his work on the Harry Potter books, but now I often hear Harry Potter characters when Mr. Dale reads other books. And Katherine Kellgren’s (just today named Booklist's Voice of Choice 2011) Bloody Jacks are bloody marvelous, but I’ve not really liked some of the other books I’ve heard her read (A and B). And I’ve heard nothing but great things about Simon Vance, but I was underwhelmed by the Dragon Tattoo (the story, first and foremost … but also because I’d seen the movie first!), and the other book I listened to him read. I’m still searching for that Simon Vance book that speaks to me. But I know it’s out there!

So all this negativity is leading … where? In choosing audiobooks, I’d still start with the book. Most important question: Is this a story that you want to read? If that’s the case, listening to it can be a sublime experience. (It can also be just dreadful … but let’s not talk about bad narrators here.) As you get used to listening, use narrators to expand your horizons – let them do the heavy lifting. Your eyes might shy away from a book that intrigues you, but it’s hefty, overly literary, or in a genre you’re not familiar with. Listening can remove these barriers – you can do all those trivial things that absorb so much of our daily lives and read a book! I’ve never been much of a nonfiction reader, but there’ve been a number of nonfiction books I’ve really enjoyed listening to (there’s this one, but interestingly most are pre-blog, notably: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Krakatoa and Seabiscuit.

Take the A train

I'm not so much with the poetry. I think I read too quickly to really savor the words, and I mainly have flashbacks to some paper I struggled to write in college. Poetry is best savored -- by anyone, I think, not just we haters -- aloud (see earlier post). So, in my second nod to the Audies in a week, I lent my ears to Walter Dean Myers' Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices. (I've been listening to some short stuff so I could post every day during Audiobook Week, but I gotta say ... it's killing me!) This fine audiobook was awarded an Audie for Distinguished Achievement in Production, and was recently featured on Talk of the Nation (which is, I'm embarrassed to say, how it came to my attention).

Each of Myers' brief, mostly free verse poems is from a (fictional) resident of Harlem. The characters could be living today or any time in the past 100 years. They are young and old, employed and not, in menial and skilled jobs, artistic, religious, criminal. They give a little history in their story, but it's not the dry stuff: Clara Brown danced at the Cotton Club, Homer Grimes lost his eyesight after a beating in the South, John Reese played in the Negro Leagues. Myers uses as his inspiration a collection of old photographs that are interspersed among the poems. (The cover of this book is a picture of Duke Ellington and two of his singers. The photo below is on the back of the book and is Myers [on the right] and his brother George in 1947. I retrieved this photo from Harlem World.)

Some of my particular favorites -- an outstanding marriage of poem and reader:
  • Willie Arnold, alto sax player, who shout-sings his "be-bops" between the driving rhythm of his verse.
  • Christopher Lomax, who watches his daughter soliciting on the corner outside his window. The grief in his voice stops up your throat.
  • Delia Pierce, hairdresser, who dishes on everyone as she serves a customer from shampoo to blow dry. "It's not like me to run my mouth," she says. Not!
  • Frank Griffin and Lemuel Burr, both veterans, who quietly and matter-of-factly tell the story of how Homer Grimes ran afoul a southern sheriff after serving in World War II.
Blessedly, there are many, many readers. New voices are heard for each poem, which gives the collage that is the collection an important additional dimension. These poems would simply not pop the way they do if they were all read by the same narrator.

Each reader (all named below) says their name at the very beginning of the book -- which I'm pretty sure is supposed to help you figure out which narrator is reading which poem. Alas, I was listening to most of this in the car -- where the opportunity to go back and forth was a bit tricky. But, as a representative example of all their considerable talents, I recognized Dion Graham's voice when he was reading. His portrayals demonstrate the broad range that really good voice actors have. His Willie Arnold was all spiky energy and explosive jazz; then, when the hustler Sam DuPree, comes into your ears he's a smooth-talking jivemaster with a hiphop delivery ("I am sweet Sam DuPree, and all the women love me."). The photo that accompanies Sam's poem has the handwritten words "strut flash" on it. Yeah, baby!

Bearing in mind what I said Tuesday about sound effects, I really enjoyed the effects here. They are subtle and varied and add a lot of atmosphere (not eerie atmosphere, but a strong sense of place). The very first poem, which appears on the inside cover of the book, is accompanied by the sounds you might hear as you walked down a street in Harlem on a warm day -- traffic noises, footsteps, music, conversations. There's also plenty of underlying music as well: a bit of "Take the A Train" starts and finishes the book, while jazz and choral bits come in and out. Willie Arnold's poem is accompanied, of course, by an alto sax.

Another place I really enjoyed the sound effects was Delia Pierce's poem. You hear the gamut of beauty salon sounds in between the pauses of the words.

Clearly, a tremendous amount of thought and work went into this audiobook: music permissions, hiring a cast of actors, identifying the sound effects and weaving them in seamlessly. A tip of the hat to Live Oak Media for this stellar effort. While I haven't heard any of the other contenders, there is no doubt that Here in Harlem is truly distinguished.

Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices by Walter Dean Myers
Narrated by Muhammad Cunningham, Michael Early, Patricia R. Floyd, Kevin R. Free, Arthur French, Dion Graham, Nathan Hinton, Ezra Knight, Robin Miles, Lizan Mitchell, Gail Nelson, Monica Patton, and Charles Turner; introduction read by Walter Dean Myers
Live Oak Media, 2010. 1:30

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Audiobook Week: Midweek Meme

Continuing to celebrate Audiobook Week with Devourer of Books:

Current/most recent audiobook: I’m in the middle of Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices by Walter Dean Myers. It’s read by a full cast and recently was honored as the most “distinguished in audio production” at this year’s Audies. I’ll finish it and review it tomorrow.

Impressions: Excellent. I’m not a big fan of poetry, but the combination of many voices and sound effects (I take back everything I said yesterday!) makes the verse come vividly to life.

Current favorite audiobook: White Cat by Holly Black. I loved the long con that is this novel about “curse workers,” those whose touch can wreak havoc, and I was most pleasantly surprised at the narration by Jesse Eisenberg. It’s likely I’ll listen to the other novels that will make up this trilogy.

One narrator who always makes you choose audio over print: Like Jen, I’m not sure if anyone would ALWAYS make me choose audio over print, but I’m highly swayed if I see Katherine Kellgren, Simon Jones, Neil Gaiman, or Dion Graham.

Genre you most often choose to listen to: None … unless you count books for kids and teens. I listen to a lot of these.

If given the choice, you will always choose audio when: Ooh, can’t answer this one either. I think if I’m wrapped up in a series that I’ve already enjoyed in audio, I’m likely to stick with it in audio. The Last Apprentice, Bartimaeus, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy (I regretted eye-reading Behemoth), Harry Potter [duh!], Bloody Jack.

If given the choice, you will always choose print when: Hmmm … even though I’ll dig in and listen to a monster every now and then (monster = more than, say, 20 hours), I find I’m shying away from devoting that much time to ONE SINGLE BOOK!

What is a meme anyway?

We're all mad here

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of those books that I'm not sure I've ever actually read ... but that I know all about. Is that because of Disney, or poetry study, or some play version that I know about the White Rabbit, Drink Me?, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Tea Party, "Off with her head!," etc.? Doesn't matter really, because reading Lewis Carroll's masterpiece brings an appreciation that goes far beyond the story's ridiculous set pieces.

I found Alice to be a an interesting mass of contradictions: She's alternately plucky and whiny, she's curious and dismissive, she's demanding and she's mildly accepting. She's big and she's small! Her encounters with the creatures human and otherwise of Wonderland are seriously trippy and ADHD-like as she flits from place to place. I was kind of bummed at the end when Carroll -- it seemed to me -- decreed that Alice's visit was only a dream ... but what was with that part where her sister has the same one? Was Carroll saying, it wasn't a dream?

Like me, you probably know the story without having ever read it. Young Alice -- spending a dozy day outdoors -- spies a white rabbit with a pocket watch and, "curiouser and curiouser" follows it down its hole. She tumbles into a world where the crazy is normal, where cats smile and babies are pigs. She attempts to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog and is accused of a terrible crime by a megalomaniacal Queen of Hearts. For the most part, she's quite accepting of the strangeness, but every once in a while, she breaks down. It's all extremely bizarre.

And what about the Mock Turtle (copyright-free image by John Tenniel retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)? I'm not sure I remembered anything about this character, beyond the reference to the soup. The chapter in which he appears is kind of a non-action section, as the Turtle simply weeps a lot and sings his sad song. I found him quite engaging. And I think that must be due to the narrator of this audiobook, the wonderfully pillowy (in form and in soothing voice) Miriam Margolyes. Hearing her read Alice, it's easy to imagine a young listener cuddled up next to her, right at that point where she/he can feel the vibrations of her speech as well.

Margolyes (perhaps best known as Professor Sprout) is all warmth narrating this story; she reads it straight as if she believed every word. She has terrific fun with the wild and crazy cast of characters -- it's hard to pick just a few to mention. The tea party is particularly memorable, with the sleepy dormouse occasionally interrupting the Mad Hatter and the March Hare (one of whom states my post title ... or is it the Cat?) in their frantic partying. The Queen is appropriately regal and screeching, while the Knave of Hearts is kind of disturbingly oily. She chooses an unusual voice for the Cheshire Cat: It's high and kind of piercing -- this isn't a very enigmatic cat.

But I just loved her Turtle. He's an old Scotsman, with the hint of a burr in his tired, lugubrious voice. Margolyes sings both of the poems that Carroll wrote -- "The Lobster Quadrille" and the "Mock Turtle" [is that what it's called?]. His friend the Gryffon is a fast-talking Cockney. Between them, they liven up this section before the trial.

The beginning and end of each of the three discs had a delightfully sprightly tune that I could have listened to for longer, had it been on offer. It was slightly baroque, which seems right for such a rococo story.

While listening to this, I was kind of surprised when it finished. I'd been waiting for Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but I guess that's in the sequel. Do you think Dodgson wrote it because his fans demanded more?

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Narrated by Miriam Margolyes
Bolinda Audio, 2010. 3:23

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Audiobook Week: Sound Effects in Audiobooks

Celebrating Audiobook Week with Devourer of Books:

Love them? Hate them? Take them or leave them? How do you feel about sound effects in audiobooks?
Alternate suggestions: Single narrator vs. multiple narrators vs. full cast, audio dramatizations, etc.

Sound effects: Ick ick ick … I’m racking my brains to come up with a book where they didn’t sound completely cheesy. Wait! They are OK for picture book read-alouds, since a creaky door, a bawking chicken or the ticktock of a clock would be something I would do were I reading aloud. If I’m reading a “chapter book” (kids or adults), I’m not making those sound effects in my head and I don’t need them “vocalized” (as it were) when I’m listening to someone read to me.

Some bad examples: A and B. And a great use of sound effects is here, as well as that peripatetic chicken, Louise, where the effects were fabulous.

Music, on the other hand, can add a great deal to an audiobook, as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the reading, or repeat itself ad nauseum.

Full cast narrations: When these are well thought out and properly edited (none of the “s/he saids”), a full-cast audio can be terrific. Here are links (A and B) to two I’ve enjoyed. Be wary of the not-so-great narrators lurking in the small parts though … they can bring down a production with a thud.

Multiple narrators: When a book calls for this – two or more first-person narratives, a narrative that alternates between two perspectives – bring on the dual narrators. Here are links to some (A and B) I think are good. Here’s a link to one that desperately needed two readers. Hearing more than one voice read a story that has more than one voice is one of the things that make audiobooks special.

Dramatizations: I’ve only listened to one and I hated it. Cheesy sound effects and expositional dialogue. Yuck.

aa bb cc dd

Alan Cumming won the Audie for "Solo Narration - Male" last month for his performance of Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston. I don't pay much attention to the Audies as there are too many categories and not much recognition of books for younger listeners. But when I realized that Cumming and a children's book had beaten out some serious competition (serious narrators and "serious" content), it seemed that I should give it my ears. I have my own opinion about why it was selected: This book should only be read aloud. In the hands of a master narrator like Cumming, its whimsy becomes tolerable.

Zorgamazoo is the story of Katrina Katrell, a classically poor orphan with a caregiver on the scale of Miss Breakbone (Paul Fleischman's The Dunderheads) or another classic, Roald Dahl's Miss Trunchbull. (Her name isn't nearly as interesting: Gremelda Krabone.) You think you've never read about lobotomies in children's literature, think again! Mrs. Krabone is so fed up with Katrina's active imagination (she calls it lying) that she "call[s] up [her] friend, a Lobotomy Doc,/a talented man at the butchery block." I have to admit, I did have a little "wha...?" moment when I got to that part.

Katrina makes a last-minute escape and comes upon a creature that she thought she'd seen earlier in the day in the subway, Mortimer Yorgle, an underground-dwelling Zorgle. Morty's just won a dubious lottery prize assigning him the job of locating a whole town of missing Zorgles, the Zorgles of Zorgamazoo. He wants desperately to succeed as a way of honoring his dying father, but he needs Katrina's gumption to help him to do the job. Together, they get to the bottom of the disappearing creatures and save the day.

I would have slit my wrists if I had read this to myself. It's all (every last bit of it) in rhyming couplets (not only that, it's in anapestic tetrameter!) and I found it just too twee and consciously zany for toleration. (Others have disagreed with me -- the cover is adorned with two book awards [the one on the right is the E.B. White Read Aloud Award, which has a rather nifty design], and I believe it won others as well.) It seemed very derivative -- like a Dr. Seuss chapter book. There's plenty of humor, dark and otherwise, but I just couldn't get beyond the format to do more than chuckle wanly.

Alan Cumming does a great job of elevating the material. He both went with the endless, lulling rhythm and defied it. To keep things interesting, he breaks the rhythm with pauses, variations in emphasis, volume changes, and a cast of funny, entertaining character voices that are always spot on and consistent. He reads the poetry with a slight Scottish burr that adds another level of humor to the story. He worked very hard to make this potentially sing-song, one-note novel into a complex, listen-able experience, and it pays off.

I downloaded this from my library's Overdrive offerings because it was an mp3 and thus playable on my (relatively) new MacBook. I was puttering around doing chores during a large part of listening to this brief novel and I found that carrying the computer around was much more pleasant than having those damn earbuds in my ears! It even sounded better ... maybe? On the other hand, it suffered from that same condition that I've heard in several other downloadable audios: the too-soon cutoff at the end of a (virtual) disc -- leaving a few seconds (minutes?) of the book unheard and unhearable.

[Zorgamazoo in print was illustrated by Victor Rivas, and I retrieved a few of his illustrations from the book's website. The topmost is Katrina and Mrs. Krabone and the bottom is Morty Yorgle.]

Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston
Narrated by Alan Cumming
Penguin Audio, 2010. 3:12

Monday, June 6, 2011

Audiobook Week: 2010-2011 Your Audiobook Year

Celebrating Audiobook Week with Devourer of Books:

Are you new to audiobooks in the last year? Have you been listening to them forever but discovered something new this year? Favorite titles? New times/places to listen? This is your chance to introduce yourself and your general listening experience.

I am a long-time listener to audiobooks (well, does 10 years count?). I started listening when I embarked upon my new career as a youth librarian and realized I was way behind in knowing the “classics” and other good books for kids. It seemed like a great way to multitask for those hours when I simply couldn’t be eye-reading. I got the bug, but then shifted into overdrive [tee hee!] when I joined a Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) committee first known as Selected Audiobooks and now called Amazing Audiobooks. Suddenly it was all (young adult) audiobooks all the time – they’re not just for walking, knitting, and driving … they’re for folding laundry, cooking, gardening (I’m using these last two terms loosely), changing the cat litter, and even showering. I started blogging my second year on the committee in order to keep track of what I was listening to. My ears got more sophisticated in my four years of committee listening as well (Year 4 I was on the Odyssey Award Committee, naming the best audiobook for children and teens in 2010 – Sing out Louise!).

Since leaving the Odyssey Committee in January 2010, I’ve been able to listen to whatever I want, so I’ve branched out to adult titles as well as those for kids and teens that might have passed me by. The TBLT list is way too long, but I still listen at a pretty constant pace (I’m up to 35 books and 273 hours so far this year … and yes, I keep track!). I don’t think I’ll run out in the near … or even far future. I admit I miss having the boxes of fresh audiobooks arriving steadily, but hey – a book like In the Company of the Courtesan or Framed is new to me! The rest of my favorites from 2010 are here.

As for favorites, I listen so constantly, it’s hard to pick one or two. So far this year I like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Ring of Solomon, Shutter Island, The True Meaning Smekday, and White Cat.

Last but not least, this year I joined the Audiobook Knitters group on the knitting social network, Ravelry. Getting through the TBLT and knocking down the stash. Awesome!

Vinegar pie

When I watch my friends' kids and hear their (mostly) mulish responses to a simple request for help from their parents, I remember what an unpleasant child I was about even the most basic of chores. I mean, you're listening to a girl who had never done a SINGLE load of laundry until she went to college (I did, however, iron pillowcases ... how ridiculous is that?). Charlie Anne hates her chores too, but I'm not entirely convinced --even though she tells me -- that's she's the only member of her family of five kids who has to do them.

In Kimberly Newton Fusco's The Wonder of Charlie Anne, the protagonist's family is falling apart. It's the middle of the Depression and Charlie Anne's mother has died giving birth to her sixth child. A distant cousin, Mirabel, has come to help her father manage his household while he sees to their farm. It seems to Charlie Anne that Mirabel is piling on the chores (including making a lot of vinegar pie), and trying to make her into a polite young lady by quoting The Charm of Fine Manners to her all the time. Then, her father leaves the family -- taking her older brother -- in order to build some roads and send some money home. Soon another member of the family is taken away. The only solace for Charlie Anne is quietly communing with the family cows and long conversations at her mother's gravesite.

When things are at their bleakest however, a spark enters Charlie Anne's life. "Old Mr. Jolly," the neighbor farmer, brings home a glamorous wife, Rosalyn, who wears "red-pepper red" pants! Accompanying Rosalyn is a young girl, Phoebe, just Charlie Anne's age. Phoebe and Rosalyn are from the South, and Phoebe is African American. Her mother and Rosalyn were very close, and Rosalyn adopted Phoebe when her mother died. Charlie Anne and Phoebe soon become fast friends, but other residents of their small New England town have a less-welcoming attitude. It may just be one too many burdens on poor Charlie Anne.

Even though Charlie Anne is a lyrical and evocative narrator, this didn't do anything for me. I found her to be a bit of a whiner and the whole story raised more questions than it answered. Granted, some are questions that might not irk a young reader. How come Rosalyn, raised in the South, is so racially enlightened? How could Charlie Anne's father go "north" from New England to build roads? Who's running the farm? Is Mr. Jolly the only adult in the community without racial prejudice? Did the community just find it OK to not have a school? How come Charlie Anne's older sister doesn't -- indeed -- seem to have any household responsibilities? And the really adult question: How did Mr. Jolly and Rosalyn meet?

The ending is a trifle neat, and I just got the feeling that I've read this story several times before -- Moon over Manifest being the most recent iteration. (Digression: I was recently booktalking Newbery books -- at the request of a teacher -- to some fifth graders, and it seemed like every single book I talked about had a missing or dead mother!)

Since my interest was lagging early on in this book, I read some reviews before I finished it. I learned two things that I believe were never actually mentioned in the novel itself: 1) Charlie Anne's family lives in Massachusetts (relevant ... give me a minute) and 2) Phoebe is Rosalyn's daughter (irrelevant). Now that I look back on this, I believe that Rosalyn refers to Phoebe as her daughter, but not in a biological way. I must have interpreted the review to mean that a nasty little secret would be revealed. Another reason not to read those reviews until you're done!

The Massachusetts part is relevant because, for the first disc of this story, I thought we were in the South. Narrator Ann Marie Lee was reading with an accent -- a slightly odd accent -- but my head told me it was a Southern accent. It was only when I read the review that I began hearing it as a New England awwhk-cent. So, did I assume the book was located in the South because of the references to the "north" and the presence of Lee's non-standard speech? What does this kind of mid-course adjustment do to one's appreciation of a book?

Lee -- an experienced narrator, but new to me -- reads this story with warmth and a lot of spunk. Charlie Anne is our unreliable narrator, and Lee keeps her front and center of her narration. She doesn't try to make her more likeable ... or more honest. There are a number of other characters who all have consistent and distinct voices. I found Lee's M-awwh-ssachusetts awwhk-cent to be a bit thick, but it contrasted nicely with Rosalyn and Phoebe's Southern-tinged voices.

There's a moment in the novel when first Charlie Anne, and then Phoebe each sing a verse of Amazing Grace. Charlie Anne can't sing very well, and Phoebe has the "voice of an angel." Lee does a good job of singing both ways. I do enjoy singing in audiobooks, and so was disappointed when, later on in the story, Phoebe sings another hymn (a Christmas carol?), Bright Morning Stars are Rising ... except no singing occurred. :-(

Other, more articulate bloggers than I have examined the issue of the lack of children of color in stories for young readers. I try to read broadly, but I know that the books I select are more likely to be about white kids as well. But I think the "sidekick" of color irks me more than the absence of color. If you're going to conscientiously put children of color in your work, why does the white kid always have to be in charge? (Two books reviewed here recently -- Virals and NERDS -- do this.) Now, granted Phoebe is really not Charlie Anne's sidekick, but still it's the white folks who fix things for her. To me, this makes Phoebe a position, not a person. And who wants to read about a position?

[The gentlemen working the road crew in 1933 are courtesy of Library and Archives Canada and were found through Wikimedia Commons.]

The Wonder of Charlie Anne by Kimberly Newton Fusco
Narrated by Ann Marie Lee
Listening Library, 2010. 6:38

Thursday, June 2, 2011

News you can use

OK ... I'm not so much with the newsy stuff, but here goes:

Just say no

Tom Perrotta knows the suburbs. According to Wikipedia [sorry!], he was born there and lives there now. He's like a critical big sister -- he can zero in pitilessly on the flaws, but underneath there's a certain amount of affection. In The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta cleverly creates protagonists who have no need to leave the leafy precincts of Stonewood Heights -- teachers, pastors, employees of mall stores, etc.) so there's no big city to get in the way of the tight, inward-looking community and its self-involved residents.

Ruth Ramsey is the titular teacher. A sex ed teacher in a middle school, she believes that frank and open information will best prepare her students as they (inevitably) explore their sexuality. She responds casually to a student's question about oral sex and finds herself under attack by the members of the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, an evangelical church led by the fervent Pastor Dennis (who -- in a flashback -- has a literal "come-to-Jesus" moment by destroying his employer's consumer electronics store). The school board bows to the Tabernacle's pressure and insists that Ruth begin teaching an abstinence-only curriculum. A divorced mother with two tween daughters, Ruth reluctantly agrees. It's just one more thing that disappoints her about her life -- she's been unwillingly abstinent herself for too long.

Ruth's younger daughter Maggie is a promising soccer player, and one Saturday Ruth catches a game. She also catches the eye of Maggie's coach, Tim Mason. Another parent informs her that Tim and his assistant coach are members of the Tabernacle, which has Ruth rethink her attraction. But when she sees Tim kneel on the ground with his team after the match for a spontaneous prayer, Ruth loses it -- grabs Maggie by the hand and stalks off the field. She tries to muster up support to dismiss Tim for inappropriate behavior, but many of the girls' parents seem willing to let it lie.

What Ruth doesn't know (yet), but we do, is that Tim is a recovering substance abuser, whose wife divorced him after one too many binges taking their daughter with her. Several years later, he found Pastor Dennis and the Tabernacle. And while grateful that Jesus helped him in his recovery, Tim's disappointments in his life mirror Ruth's. He's trapped in a Tabernacle-imposed marriage while still lusting after his ex-wife, his visits with his daughter are limited and strained, and his craving for alcohol and drugs isn't going away. He knows he's in trouble over the impromptu prayer, and he contacts Ruth to see if they can work it out between them.

I enjoyed this very much -- not just for its satire (A whole chapter is devoted to a book recommended by Pastor Dennis: Hot Christian Sex: The Godly Way to Spice Up Your Marriage by the Reverend Mark D. and Barbara G. Finster [don't the names just make you giggle?] -- "According to the Finsters, sex between married Christians was a whole lot more freewheeling than Tim had realized."), but for its characters and their complex motivations. Many are denying themselves (abstaining from) something -- sex, alcohol, food, love, faith, companionship. Those who aren't -- minor characters, mostly -- are seemingly the happiest. Tim, in his extremis of Jesus vs. everything in his life that matters to him, is particularly compelling, believable and utterly sympathetic. I liked that Perrotta really doesn't choose sides here -- while Pastor Dennis is on the easily caricatured side, many of his Tabernacle flock are fully realized individuals. And the non-believing suburbanites come in for much skewering as well.

One of the reasons that I liked Tim so much, I think, is because of the book's narrator, Campbell Scott. His subdued, deadpan reading of Tim's dialogue and the portions of the novel from Tim's perspective just seemed perfectly attuned to his quiet character -- with all those emotions and addictive desires roiling just underneath the surface. There is just the barest edge of sarcasm when he reads the funny parts. Scott rarely raises his voice and only slightly varies his delivery, and occasionally I would have trouble tracking which character was speaking. I really didn't mind this, though, because his subtle command of the book makes for riveting listening. I spent most of the novel sitting quietly and paying close attention just in case I might have missed something.

Years ago (seven, to be exact), I listened to Scott read Michael Hoeye's Time Stops for No Mouse. It was probably on cassette!! My brief notes note Scott's "understated" reading, which is a word I would apply to this book as well. He's extremely pleasant to listen to, so I might cue up another one with him narrating. He's got an interesting resume.

For the first time, I listened to a book almost entirely in the company of another person. We had a long, dull drive to Ashland, Oregon (one I've taken over and over again) and I wanted to convince the driver that an audiobook would speed the miles away. We didn't quite finish the book on the journey, but it sure made the ten hours there and back fun. However, the listening together was weird for me. Sure, there were the sex parts ... but it wasn't just that. The private experience reading has been for me was now something completely different.

At a YALSA preconference on audiobooks in 2006, Bruce Coville told a story about sharing a cross-country ride with his daughter and how the books got them talking about all sorts of things. (Ooh! I hauled out my report for this preconference: "The most important thing I learned was how audiobooks enable us to listen to stories together. They provide a shared literary experience that most of us haven’t had since we began reading on our own.") Maybe I'm not ready to have a shared literary experience with my driver. I'm taking much longer car trip later this summer (to Grand Teton National Park) with a very close friend. I wonder if listening with her will be different?

[The image is the Hall of Abstinence in Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park, a photograph taken by Vmenkov. I've been there!]

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
Narrated by Campbell Scott
Audio Renaissance, 2007. 10:23