Monday, December 31, 2012

It was a sort of good year

I am trying to figure out if the vast number of hours I devoted to listening in 2011 (731:54) was a fluke or not, because my 2012 total (557:51) just barely topped my hours for 2010 (543:02). I probably spent more time in a car in 2011 and I didn't take one of those long vacations where I don't get a lot of listening in either.  There was the four-month computer absence this year, and I was involved in a performance (fourth row from the left, third person in) that sucked up (in a good way) all my exercise time for two months. My total books read (including listening) was way down this year as well:  167 books this year, 256 in 2011 and 221 in 2010. I know I lost my reading mojo this year, but I didn't think it affected my listening as well.

So, 59 books listened to (down from 87), but the hours per book was up slightly -- just under 9.5 hours/title compared to 8.4 hours in 2011. Close to a third of these books were downloadables. I evened out my adult and child/teen listening as I had wanted to: 29 audiobooks were those published for children or teens. I listened to five works of nonfiction. Just three authors showed up more than once: Louisa May Alcott (two titles, in what is now considered one book) Holly Black (with two plus the short story collection she edited), and Rebecca Stead, also with two. I spread the wealth among lots of narrators. At three times each, Julia Whelan and Katherine Kellgren were the narrators I listed to the most.

I have no trouble coming up with five great adult titles (all by women):
Honorable mention goes to Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.

There weren't five standouts for me in the kids and teen books though, so here are three (all by men):
Honorable mention to The Wake of the Lorelei Lee by L.A. Meyer.  Kellgren and Bloody Jack up to their usual high standard.

And the one item really worth mentioning: I managed to put not one, but two pictures of my cats in the blog this year!

On to 2013!  (As I write this, I cannot locate my mp3 player, which is going to put a bit of a crimp in the next few days.)

[The ball that "dropped" in Times Square on New Year's Eve 2007, taken by Clare Cridland and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]


Four years ago, I listened to Pat Barker's Life Class, about the effect of World War I on a group of young English artists.  Two men, working class Paul Tarrant and privileged Kit Neville, vie for the affections of Elinor Brooke as both are drawn into the vortex of trench warfare.  Toby's Room expands our knowledge of this triangle, while adding a third man to the mix: Elinor's beloved brother Toby.

In 1912, Elinor is down for the weekend from London and her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art at the same time her older brother is taking a few days off from his medical studies. On a hot morning, the two take a familiar walk from their childhood home and exchange a passionate kiss. Elinor is horrified but intrigued by this encounter, and -- as we learn later on -- it didn't end with that kiss.  Then, we skip five years to 1917. From Life Class, we know that Paul and Elinor have had an affair and that Paul has returned to England, wounded, from the front. But Elinor soon learns that Toby has been declared "Missing, Believed Dead," and -- bereft -- she entreats Paul to help her find out what really happened.

She's discovered a note in her brother's belongings explaining that Kit Neville will know what happened.  Kit has returned from France grievously wounded, and enters Queen's Hospital, where patients like him -- those with severe facial wounds -- are treated. The plastic surgeons depend on pastel images of the wounds and their reconstruction drawn by Henry Tonks, surgeon and life class instructor at the Slade (and former academic nemesis of Kit and Paul), as they attempt to return these scarred soldiers to a semblance of normal appearance.  Against his better judgment, Paul visits Kit at the hospital, finding him not terribly receptive to Paul's tentative questions about what happened to Toby, but eventually we learn the story.

This is one of those novels about people who are not very nice. Elinor is an entitled bitch, Paul is a sap (where she's concerned), Kit was a bitter narcissist before his face was blown off, and Toby ... well, I pegged Toby's "problem" (and its solution) very early on. Barker has an obvious passion for the subject of art and the ever expanding ripples of World War I that she's used to greater effect than she does here.  The most interesting character is Kit, whose morphine-induced hallucinations and pain-filled time at Queen's are vivid and compelling.  But I found this novel to be two books that didn't mix very well together: The story of four not particularly pleasant people working out some not terribly interesting problems, and the story of soldiers in unbearable suffering and the efforts of a few dedicated people to ease that suffering.

The book reviewer from the Guardian newspaper tells me that Elinor is a fiction-alized version of the artist Dora Carrington (whom I only know through the Emma Thompson movie), but even though this made me slightly curious about whether and how Barker will continue to write about her, it didn't make me like her any more.

The book is narrated by Nicola Barber. I enjoyed listening to her pleasant reading voice describe a lush English meadow, a wild storm on the Suffolk coast, and the horrifying work of the stretcher bearers as they stumble through No Man's Land searching for the wounded.  She has a perfect upper class accent for the insufferable Elinor and a natural regional accent for Paul Tarrant who comes from Northern England.  She has the opportunity to toss in a few words from the Antipodes as the primary plastic surgeon is a Kiwi.  Her best work is with the character of Kit Neville.  His physical suffering is apparent in her voice, but also evident is the difficulty any person would have attempting to speak with part of his face missing. Barber speaks understandably, while projecting a completely differently pace and sound from any of the other characters.

While Life Class and Toby's Room share characters, they don't need to be read in "order"as their timelines overlap -- Life Class takes place in the gap between the 1912 and 1917 of Toby's Room, and the latter sort of wraps up Elinor and Paul's unfinished business from the former.  (It might be kind of interesting to read them in reverse order actually.)  I chose this book from the recent Solid Gold Reviewer offerings from the Audiobook Jukebox because I remembered liking Life Class so much.  Looking back, though, I think it was the narrator I liked. Barber is a good narrator and I'd like to hear her again, but she doesn't give me the same vivid aural recollection I got from Life Class' Russell Boulter.

Thanks to AudioGO for a copy of this audiobook.

[Official War artists had very clear restrictions on what they could and couldn't portray in their art. This is Henry Tonks' "An Advanced Dressing Station," painted in 1918 and in the public domain. It resides in the Imperial War Museum and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Toby's Room by Pat Barker
Narrated Nicola Barber
AudioGO, 2012.  9:08

Thursday, December 27, 2012


I think it was Will Patton who prompted me to choose Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys for listening. (More accurately, I casually put myself on the hold list for a digital copy and promptly forgot about it ... then it arrived and -- as one must do with digital books -- physical ones must be set aside because e-holds cannot be frozen nor e-items renewed [OK, so I probably couldn't have renewed The Raven Boys] which, in a nutshell, are the reasons why I have yet to buy an e-reader.)  I've enjoyed the two Steifvater books I've read (listened to this one), but I'm not a drop-everything-to-read fan (unless I have to be). Narrator Patton seemed like a good fit, as his warm, Southern-inflected voice instantly evokes the mountainous region around sleepy Henrietta, Virginia.

Henrietta is the home of the prestigious Aglionby (pronounced AG-lon-bee) Academy for privileged young men, called Raven Boys in the town because of the school's mascot. Town and gown don't mix much in Henrietta; Blue Sargent, 16-year-old daughter of a local psychic, particularly doesn't because she knows they are "bastards." But Blue, who is not psychic herself but can amplify the paranormal activity in her presence, finds herself becoming friends with four of the Boys after they come to her mother (and the other three psychics who live with them) for a reading that will help the Boys with a mysterious quest.

The Raven Boys -- Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah -- are seeking a ley line that runs through Henrietta. Ley lines crisscross the globe connecting magical sites, and adherents believe that people and objects have been transported along them. (The Nazca lines in Peru are perhaps the most famous ancient monument held by some to be ley lines.)  The Boys believe that a 15th century Welsh king named Owen Glendower -- who fought for independence from the English until he mysteriously disappeared in 1415 -- fled along a ley line connecting Wales to Henrietta and is buried on it.  For some reason that I missed when I was listening, they want to find his body and "awaken" him. Since Blue can augment any energy along the ley line, the Boys need her to help them.

Blue falls for one of the Boys, Adam, a scholarship boy also from Henrietta. But Blue has been told by her mother not to kiss her true love because her kiss will mean his death.

The Raven Boys is the first installment in a four-book cycle and it sags under the exposition. The first half of the novel is comprised of lots and lots of atmosphere -- the bright orange power car that Gansey drives, Adam's unhappy home life, a few scryings and trips into the ether by the quartet of psychics in Blue's household, the introduction of the villain of the piece (who then disappears until the very end), and much, much more. I could not focus enough on these details to remember the ones that proved to be important as the plot kicked in. (I also read a huge spoiler as I was poking around online to try to get a handle on what hadn't sunk in.) The plot does take off at about Disc 7 (with the discovery of a body) and concludes at an exciting pace (although there are an awful lot of guns). But way too many things are left hanging: Why is it important to raise Glendower, what about Blue and her true love, what does Blue's absent father have to do with anything? And even though there are all these questions, I can live without knowing the answers.

Stiefvater's writing is lovely, particularly when she gets into the Virginia mountains and describes the whispering trees (which actually whisper ... in Latin), the meadows and the dense forest. A car that has been abandoned in the woods for seven years is vividly pictured coated with pollen. Her characters are also fully fledged creations (because of all the information that's thrown at us in the beginning) -- even though there are four Boys and four psychics, I had no problem remembering who was who.

When I (eye) read The Scorpio Races, it gets off to that boffo start ("It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.") and then never really lets up until the race and its aftermath. The Raven Boys has a first sentence that also packs a punch ("Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.") but then it seems to take forever to get back to that statement and even then it doesn't really pay off. Someone does, indeed, die in The Scorpio Races; in The Raven Boys that true love's heart remains beating.

To the audiobook. Will Patton is just excellent here. His raspy drawl embodies those boys of privilege beautifully and he makes poetry out of Stiefvater's descriptions of the haunted Virginia mountains. When the story turns exciting, his pace quickens as well. Each character has a distinctive voice that accurately reflects their personalities and these were sustained throughout the novel. The Boys are each natural sounding and authentically youthful. Blue sounds differently youthful without being femmy. Two of the psychics have an exaggerated delivery that gets a little wearing, but neither appears much and their voices are in character.

I have to say, though, that Patton's reading stopped me cold late in the book with his pronunciation of "ignominy." Ig-NOM-ih-knee. I have never heard that word pronounced that way. That aside, this may be one of those cases where the audio version improves the book.

The producer creates a nice effect when two characters speak at once (which happens just a few times in the novel), providing two voices -- each in character -- simultaneously. The first time I heard it it was a bit startling, but then I grew to like it. On the other hand, something happened in the translation to digital (or maybe this book is only available digitally and it was the translation to OverDrive): Only about a minute of Chapter 18 is heard before it cuts in mid-sentence to Chapter 19. I never did learn what the Latin teacher Barrington Whelk found in Gansey's locker.

[At the tarot reading the Boys attend with Blue's mother, Gansey turns over the Death card. This Troccas-Karte XIII - der Tod is from the 19th century and was created (?) by Johann Georg Rauch. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Narrated by Will Patton
Scholastic Audio, 2012. 11:04

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Made for each other

OK, even though I feel like I'm the last person to have read this, I'll try to keep the Gone Girl spoilers to a minimum. Gillian Flynn's "breakout" novel about a really, really bad marriage has plenty of twists and turns (and an ending that irritated a lot of people -- which surprised me [not the ending, the irritation] -- but to talk any more about it would, indeed, spoil the novel for the few remaining non-readers) but the narrative stems most truthfully from the two extremely vivid characters, so there's no trickery in the story; instead sit back for hours and hours of great storytelling.

It's July 5, 2012, the fifth wedding anniversary (wood) of Nick and Amy Dunne. This golden couple has had a rough few years, both lost their jobs in journalism in the economic meltdown and then Amy's trust fund had to be raided by her parents. Amy's parents are the authors of a best-selling children's series about "Amazing Amy" (forget at your peril that Amy is amazing), but the books aren't selling the way they used to. To top it off, Nick's father's dementia gets worse at the same time as his mother is diagnosed with cancer, so the couple decide to leave their fabulous Brooklyn townhouse to return to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. They've been living there for two years. Nick hasn't yet purchased his wife's anniversary gift, but he knows that Amy's traditional (and frustrating) cute-clue-driven present hunt awaits him when he returns home from the bar he owns (purchased with the last of Amy's money) with his sister. A phone call from his neighbor sends him home early -- to find a ransacked living room and no sign of his wife.

With a narrative that switches from the feckless Nick (who quickly becomes the police's number one suspect) to Type-A Amy (who we get to know through diary entries describing her romance and marriage to Nick), a picture of their not-so-picture-perfect marriage slowly and tantalizingly emerges: Two not-very-nice people whose epic dysfunction has ripples well beyond the confines of their McMansion on the Mississippi. If a reader wasn't having so much fun following the circuitous plot, she might want to take a long, hot shower to wash away the grubbiness that rubs off from the Dunnes.

I like being led around by a skilled author (and a couple of unreliable narrators), anticipating the next twist just for the sheer fun of wondering what it might be. Each one (and there are a few) drops with a satisfactory "aha" -- accompanied by a moment or two where you cast your mind back to what you thought you knew that has now been stood satisfyingly on its ear. Or the equally pleasurable activity of parsing where the clues to what you now know were hidden. Then there's the parts where you sympathize with Nick ... no wait, with Amy. No, wait ... Nick and Amy are like a train wreck, you cannot stop watching them until it's all over (or is it over?).

The novel also skewers our instant media culture, and the rapid leap to judgment if it makes a "good" story. Both Nick and Amy are products of that culture, of course, so there's a certain rightness to them becoming victims of it. Gone Girl is also the portrait of a marriage (a pretty sour one) and all the compromises and white (and non-white) lies that can take place inside of one.

Nick and Amy are almost perfectly cast with Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan. Heyborne's light voice is just right for Nick, whose self-pity is palpable as he tries to explain his way out of one incriminating action after another. As Nick finds himself deeper and deeper in trouble, the sense of panic in Heyborne's delivery works beautifully. Thanks to my new blogger labels (which you can click on to see what I've heard), I can see that I've listened to him read seven different books (all for kids or teens), but I have never liked him as much as I did listening to him embody the hapless, yet conniving Nick Dunne.

Whelan is also excellent. I've heard her read three times, all books for teens, so Amazing Amy (who, in many ways, has not yet left childhood) seems a natural step for her youthful delivery. Amy is a serious control freak and know-it-all, and her tight grasp of the events of the narrative is evident in her clipped, business-like -- laced with a bitter edge -- delivery.  She has a riff on what makes a "cool" girl that is just terrific. When things start to go a little wrong for Amy (I will risk a teeny spoiler and say that I just loved the scenes where we first meet Amy), there's a little more edge in her voice. But, really, Amy never panics.

Each does a good job voicing each other, along with a varied cast of characters that include Nick's demented father, his supportive sister, Amy's needy parents, an old admirer of Amy's, a rapacious television investigative show hostess, a big-time lawyer who defends guilty husbands, some poor white trash, and a couple of honest cops. There isn't a moment in the audiobook that drags, even though it clocks in at nearly 20 hours.

The audiobook tells me that the author's name is hard-g Gillian (while the Gill of a couple of books ago is a soft-g ... must be a Scots thing). Things like this are always interesting to me. Flynn is experiencing that surge of interest "it" authors experience: tons of holds on books that have been out for a couple of years. There are nearly 800 holds on Gone Girl at my library ... and another 130 on the audiobook! I guess I got to it before about 1,000 people here in Portland. I'm not the last to read it after all.  It was entertaining to read all the spoilers out there on the world wide web ... after the fact, of course. I'm not the type of reader who peeks at the end.

[Nick shares a sentimental story with more than one character about the job he once held portraying Tom Sawyer, whitewashing that fence at the birthplace of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri. This photo of the birthplace was taken by Andrew Balet and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan
Random House Audio, 2012.  19:12

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Come at once. We have struck a berg.

This may be a first for this blog: I am a friendly acquaintance of author Deborah Hopkinson, whose Titanic: Voices from the Disaster went into my ears when I learned it was on the shortlist for YALSA's 2013 Award for Excellent in Nonfiction. A colleague on this award committee expressed concern that I would be missing the visuals by listening, but I forged ahead anyway.

Who doesn't know what happened in the middle of the North Atlantic late in the evening of April 14, 1912?  There is no doubt that it makes a great story, remaining vividly in view for more than 100 years. Hopkinson knows we know, so she tells the story almost exclusively through the recollections of survivors -- a teenager who scorned getting on a lifeboat with the women and children, a stewardess who survived another sinking four years later, a science teacher on holiday, a young Norwegian immigrant returning to the US, the courageous telegraph operator who stood at his post until almost the end, and the highest ranking officer who survived by hanging on precariously to an upside-down lifeboat. She augments their voices with the ship's facts and figures and the chronological telling of the brief hours between striking the iceberg and the sinking of the great ship.  It's engaging and interesting, and filled with horror and tension. Even though you know a particular individual must have lived (because they are talking to you), their survival is no less miraculous. The night spent by the 14 men clinging to the upside-down lifeboat, Collapsible B, was enthralling.

But, ultimately, my colleague was right. I did miss the visuals. To really enjoy this book, I needed to have it in front of me. I wanted to leaf back to remind myself who someone was, what I had learned about them earlier. I wanted to see what they looked like, and what their friends and loved ones who hadn't survived looked like. I wanted a map of the ship so I could see the odds against some of the survivors. I wanted to see how big Collapsible B was and how 14 men could have spent the long, frigid night atop it. Alas, what was mostly in my mind's eye as I listened was this (which I saw only once, but which I now have a slight craving to see again).

It was also not a great listening experience because I couldn't follow the audiobook's techniques for illustrating the book's varying narratives. Chapter headings included quotations from survivors, which were read by various uncredited narrators. But it also seemed that these spoken quotations occurred in the middle of chapters as well.  A second narrator, Peter Altschuler, pipes in occasionally to read what I think are text boxes. But either I couldn't distinguish between Altschuler's voice and that of the main narrator, Mark Bramhall, or there just weren't that many text boxes. (It could, of course, also be that I just wasn't paying enough attention [distracted by Rose and Jack].)

Altschuler reads with a older man's raspy voice, while Bramhall sounds a little younger. But they both take a documentarian approach to their reading -- calm, steady, authoritative. Emotion creeps into their narrations when reading the survivors' stories, but neither approached these quotations with an eye to voice acting. This added to my confusion as well -- the chapter heading quotations are read with characterization, characterization that I initially expected to hear in the main narrative as well. And at least at the very beginning, I thought I'd be getting a full-cast version. On the whole, the audiobook had a certain schizophrenic feel.

Hopkinson's book concludes with about 70 pages of backmatter, 50 of which are not included in the audiobook. If you like poring over this kind of stuff, it's another argument for the eyes.

I admire Hopkinson for acknowledging -- tacitly -- the scads of fictional information about this event in her text. She briefly mentions the ship's more famous passengers: Molly Brown, John Jacob Astor, and the Strauses who chose to die together. She describes the magnificent grand staircase and the first class gathering rooms. She explains that no locked gate barred the third class passengers from reaching the deck. Perhaps the band played "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and perhaps they didn't. Oddly, the most vivid memory I have of the movie (aside from Jack's death) is the way the massive ship went straight up and then straight down. Hopkinson explains how and why it happened this way.

Does the world need another Titanic book? Probably not, but this is the first nonfiction account I've read. So, I'm as guilty as the next person in believing James Cameron's version of events. Let's celebrate this vivid account, but understand that reading it is probably better.

[Stephan Rehorek took this photo of the "eisberg" likely encountered by the Titanic. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons (where death years of both 1935 and 1975 are cited).] 

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson
Narrated by Mark Bramhall, Peter Altschuler and others
Listening Library, 2012. 4:55


This summer, when I reported on Holly Black's Red Glove I said that "I don't want to wait" for the audio version of her third book in The Curse Workers to show up in the catalog, and so I would promptly eye-read it.  So much for that vow.  (I lost my reading mojo this year -- poor concentration abetted by a lotta bad books I had to read and the availability of too many DVDs -- so my New Year's resolution is to get it back.)  Dear reader, five months later, I found Black Heart on the audiobook shelves and tossed it in the ears.  I am, of course, glad I did.

(A digression: I don't like the "new" covers of these books.  Each features Lila Zacharov, beloved of series hero Cassel Sharpe. Unlike the estimable Kimberly and Kelly of Stacked -- who critically and entertainingly examine the covers of books written for young adults -- I think of a book cover [unless it is egregiously bad or outstandingly good] as the thing you flip to the left so you can get to the good part. But having spent the year I lost my reading mojo reading almost nothing but first-time authors for young adults and finding them overwhelmingly intended to appeal to young women, it seems to me that any book that might be of even the smallest interest to young men will have difficulty attracting these readers if a female graces the cover. Particularly if said female is surrounded by swoopy lines of hair. On the other hand, the "original" covers of Red Glove and White Cat aren't exactly screaming "manly." So, really, what do I know?)

Spoilers here if you haven't read Books 1 and 2. Black Heart picks up the tale of the star-crossed Cassel and Lila after Cassel has been recruited by the Feds to go undercover in the curse-work-fueled mob led by Lila's father. Lila herself now wears the necklace-like scars that mark her as a full-fledged member of the Zacharov gang. Curse workers can change you -- make you fall in love, make you forget, make you something else entirely -- with a touch of their bare hands. Cassel is a one-of-a-kind curse worker: He can transform with his touch, turning his girlfriend into a cat or an enemy into a table. Both the Feds and the mob think that Cassel's curse can be turned to their advantage.  Blowback, the debilitating physical reaction to working someone, can come in more than one form.

All Cassel tries to do is the right thing. He loves Lila but believes that she only loves him back because she was worked by his mother to do so. His best friends are fighting but when Cassel intervenes he only seems to make things worse. His older brother claims to be a federal agent, but he's a notorious liar. The Feds are sending mixed signals. And his mother -- after publicly working the Governor of New Jersey -- has vanished. To top it off, the Governor wants to bring back internment camps for workers, for their own safety, of course. Listen as he tries to balance all of this and graduate from high school.

Like Black's other two titles, Black Heart is a delightful long con, with Cassel's nebbishy exterior and angsty musings offering just the right distraction. The plot is pretty convoluted and I'm still not sure I believe that Cassel's con would have worked, but it certainly entertains and concludes the story of Cassel and Lila in an entirely satisfactory (if a wee bit shocking) way.

While engaging, what makes these books rise above is the narration by Jesse Eisenberg. He's really quite perfect as socially awkward, eager-to-please Cassel, with his high, worried voice and occasionally halting and nervous delivery. But he also gives you a picture of the confident con man who lies underneath, taking cool command of the narration as he takes command of the narrative. When things look particularly bleak for Cassel, panic and uncertainty are audible. And when Cassel and Lila finally kiss and head discreetly and tenderly to bed, Eisenberg's longing and love for her is perfectly clear in his delivery. It's a lovely performance. I'd very much like to hear him read something else.

And speaking of listening to a narrator again, I went back through all 632 posts this week and added the narrator(s) as a label, so I can more easily see when I've listened to someone before. This exercise was occasionally amusing since I never actually mentioned a narrator by name in a couple of instances. (The Audiobook Jukebox helped out.) I was actually surprised at how many narrators have only one entry in my labels; I thought I'd see more instances of readers I'd listened to over and over again.  Many of the narrators who show up regularly are because I'm listening to them read a series (Katherine Kellgren/Bloody Jack and Christopher Evan Welch/The Last Apprentice most notably).  Kellgren shows up eight other times, but it's my main narrator man, Dion Graham, who leads the pack with 11 non-series books! 

I'd also like to give a shoutout to Kirby Heyborne with seven (soon to be eight) titles. Heyborne never comes to mind as a narrator I seek out to listen to, but -- despite his tics -- he's reliably good.  He does excellent work in a book I hope to get around to posting on this weekend. Nick Dunne is to Kirby Heyborne what Cassel Sharpe is to Jesse Eisenberg -- a character no one else can voice quite so effectively.   I am one of those people who doesn't watch commercial television except when trapped in a hotel room, so I got a little frisson of audiobookishness at seeing Heyborne what felt like every five minutes over Thanksgiving weekend as he cheerfully shilled for Target.

[Alas, this New Jersey Governor who has to wear his name on his clothes was not worked by Cassel's mom, although Bruce Springsteen substituted nicely. Walter Burns took this photo of Chris Christie and I retrieved it from Wikimedia Commons.]

Black Heart (The Curse Workers, Book 3) by Holly Black
Narrated by Jesse Eisenberg
Listening Library, 2012. 6:34

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where no one has gone before

Continuing in the nonfiction mode, we have Mary Roach's Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.  I'm new to Mary Roach, and -- after listening to Henrietta Lacks -- her authorial invasiveness felt intrusive.  Still, her breezy and informative take on various scientific studies was interesting, and certainly convinced me (not that I needed convincing, despite my long-time [yet inexplicable] fondness for Star Trek) that I am not astronaut material.

Roach addresses -- chapter by chapter -- the situations of human survival (eating, eliminating, intercourse/procreating, need for bathing, our tolerance for close quarters -- with or without our fellow humans, etc.) and how scientists (from NASA and other places) have prepared for these situations in space, either in actuality (Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle/space station eras) or on a future years-long voyage to our nearest neighbor, Mars. The questions Roach asks are those that NASA by and large prefers not to answer, although they appeared to be quite cooperative with her. I learned a lot:
  • We lose our ability to smell ourselves after about eight days (but that we can get very, very stinky).
  • Clothing will eventually just rot off.
  • Food crumbs and dandruff aren't ignorable (i.e., hanging out quietly on the floor) in zero-gravity.
  • The pornography industry has spent some time and talent trying to recreate weightless sex.
  • A major problem in zero-G defecation is the moment the poop actually separates from your body (gravity is essential!).
The author went on one of those zero-G parabolic plane rides, she met with heavily indebted folks who were paid to lie in a bed for two weeks, she watched the pornography, she listened to the elimination engineers talk about that separation problem. She's mostly amused at what she finds, and I think that's what I ultimately found offputting about her style. Yes, she's informative and engaging, but she inserts herself in such a knowingly arch way (much differently than Rebecca Skloot does) that the book becomes all about her, rather than about her very interesting subject. Perhaps it wouldn't have bothered me as much had I not just come off of Henrietta Lacks. Give me a few years and I might try another one of her books (each of which sounds equally fascinating).

The narrator, Sandra Burr, goes with Roach's self-aware, aren't-I-amusing approach, reading with an edge of irony (particularly in Roach's copious footnotes) that tells you that she is in on the joke.  Burr is a pretty straightforward reader -- which I have found a little dull in fiction -- using a no-frills style that is appropriate for nonfiction. Her reading here is a unsurprising, yet professional, job.

From the department of too-much-information (and an explanation of my personal habits that goes on and on and on ... so feel free to ignore). The main reason I don't like listening to downloadables is that they don't work well for falling asleep. My clock radio has a place where I can connect my mp3 player, but the volume needs to be so high that when the radio goes off in the morning it is heart-attack-inducing. Then there's the problem of middle-aged wakefulness -- I fall asleep listening, but then wake up in a whole 'nother part of the book. Tracking back to where I was is impossible, particularly so when you are trying to not fully wake up.

So, when I have a downloadable going (and I have a downloadable going because I want to listen to the book and it's usually only available to me in that format), I like to have another book in the ears for nights. I've been using Brilliance audiobooks because of their 99-track format. These don't transfer well from the copy I've made on my laptop onto my mp3 player (all the Track 1s fall together, then the Track 2s, etc.). I tried valiantly to make this work on a recent trip out of town, finally putting each disc into a different "type" of audio (one was in Albums, one in Audiobooks, one in Podcasts). Ridiculous. Those 99 tracks make it easier to go back and listen to the parts I've slept through as well ... I don't have to listen three times to the beginning of a six- or seven-minute track, always falling asleep before it finishes.  This has worked out pretty well to date: a downloadable for daytimes, and a Brilliance on CD for nights. But now -- after I've been complaining about them for a decade (I'm embarrassed to note the six times I blogged about it) -- Brilliance has changed format -- the 99 tracks are no more!!  In the future, there will be more and more downloadables, fewer and fewer books on CD. Solution? Ambien?

[The image of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Narrated by Sandra Burr
Brilliance Audio, 2010.  10:35

Monday, December 17, 2012

What does it mean to live forever?

Eleven bloggers before me have linked their reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the Audiobook Jukebox. That's one more (including me) than have listened to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which seemed to be the audiobook du jour for the longest time. I have come late to Henrietta's party, but not without appreciation. This story is unlike anything I've ever read before and it is one pretty great audiobook. I will go on and on about it.

Rebecca Skloot is a young science writer who stumbled across the bare bones story of Henrietta Lacks when she was in high school. Over time, she researched it, but it was a chance encounter with an acquaintance of the Lacks family that enabled her to write this book. When Skloot was introduced to Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, she saw the story she was meant to tell.

And that is partly the story of Henrietta -- a young mother of five who died of cervical cancer in 1951 when she was 31 years old. Her death was agonizing by all accounts, as it included radiation treatment that charred her abdomen. But during her time in the colored ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, researchers scraped some of the cancer cells off her cervix and handed them to some lab workers. Unlike any other cells this lab had worked with, these cells (now called HeLa) survived, they went on dividing. And those lab researchers gave away the cells to other lab researchers, who have used HeLa over the past 60 years to make all sorts of important medical advances. Many research organizations that have HeLa cells now sell them to other researchers (although Johns Hopkins claims that its researchers never did).  There is doubt whether Henrietta gave consent (much less informed consent) to have her cells used in research, but her family only found out about the miracle of HeLa more than 20 years later.

And the impact on the family was dev-astating. Mostly poor and raised in a household that didn't talk much about Henrietta and how she died, the news that her cells had lived beyond her created several issues in the minds of her family.  The uninformed medical experimentation imposed on African Americans (most notably the Tuskegee study of the effects of syphilis on black men), the gap in care provided to black patients during the 1950s and in the 21st century (most of Henrietta's children developed health problems, but can't afford health insurance), and the simple fact that when the family was informed about HeLa, they were being asked to submit to medical experimentation themselves -- without the scientists ever bothering to answer their most basic questions. Without these answers, unreasonable fears arose -- particularly for Henrietta's daughter Deborah: Was it the radiation -- and not the cancer -- that killed her mother, was her mother at rest, was she in pain in the afterlife from all the testing of her cells, are her clones walking about?

Skloot befriends Deborah and part of this story is how she slowly gained Deborah's trust, and tried to address Deborah's fears by sharing what she learned. Even though Deborah did not live to see the publication of Skloot's book (she died in 2009), Skloot created a foundation in her (and Henrietta's) memory to help future generations of Lackses. She also asks important questions of all of us: What does it mean when we sign those informed consent forms? Who owns our tissue once it is removed from our bodies? Who -- if anyone -- should be able to profit?

I was deeply impressed by Skloot's doggedness. She just kept asking questions, looking for people, sometimes beyond sense. Her relationship with Deborah was fraught and occasionally she seemed to push the volatile Deborah inadvisedly. Most of her research took place in the 1990s when Skloot was still in her 20s and she seemed occasionally to forge ahead without regard for the consequences. A trip she took with Deborah to visit the mental institution Henrietta's oldest daughter was committed to as a child was horrifying, and it just got worse once they arrived at the small town where Henrietta grew up.  An exorcism was required.

Skloot is a palpable presence in this book; the story of her research is a critical part of her story. And Cassandra Campbell, the narrator, beautifully portrays her. She begins to read with the air of a dispassionate and young nonfiction writer, but as she gets more and more entangled with the Lacks family, Skloot's own emotions are vivid in Campbell's voice. She also does an outstanding job of reading with appropriate African American inflections, Deborah and other members of her family sound black without caricature. That exorcism scene (and that's what it was) involved Deborah's cousin calming her down by asking Henrietta to stop haunting her and Campbell's narration is chilling and powerful. It was impossible to stop listening.

The book includes a few short examples of Deborah's own writing and these are read by the reliable Bahni Turpin, who manages to portray all of Deborah's fear and weariness in just a few words. Skloot herself is interviewed as well, providing additional insights into her research and writing process. Among other things, she tells us that she originally began the book with the exorcism, but wisely moved it to a point where readers feel connected with Deborah and her struggles.

I haven't listened to much nonfiction this year (just these two, as a matter of fact), and I usually go in the opposite direction from anything science-based, but this book was followed by another science-y one. I'm not the first person to note that good nonfiction writers recognize the importance of story.  Henrietta Lacks had a remarkable story.

[The photo of Deborah with her brother's granddaughters came from Rebecca Skloot's website, where there are lots of other great pictures. This beautiful image of HeLa cells is from the February 4, 2010 issue of Nature and was retrieved through EBSCOhost.]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell, with Bahni Turpin
Books on Tape, 2010.  12:31

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rear window

I've fallen quite far behind in blogging, but even though it's been weeks since I finished Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy it's still pretty fresh. The author is just so skilled at setting -- in addition to the thoughtful puzzles she creates for her characters and her readers -- that Georges' Brooklyn apartment building and the mysteries that occurred there still occupy a corner of my brain (although maybe that's just guilt because it's been three weeks since I finished it).  Stead's work is memorable enough that -- unlike some authors -- I'm not having any difficulty keeping it separate from First Light, her first novel and one I just finished listening to a few weeks before.

Georges (the s is silent) has had a rough couple of months.  Aside from the fact that his parents named him after the pointillist Georges Seurat (a copy of his most famous painting hangs in Georges' family's living room) -- which causes relentless teasing from his seventh grade classmates ("Hey there Gorgeous!"), he and his parents have had to move out of their home because his architect-father was laid off, his mother is working long shifts at her nursing job to make ends meet, and his best friend has inexplicably joined the A-list crowd. But things start to look up when he sees a sign in the laundry room announcing the meeting of Spy Club in his new apartment building.

At the meeting, the only other members are a brother and sister, Safer and Candy, who live on the top floor.  Safer is a year or so older than Georges, and he is deeply suspicious of the guy who lives on the floor below, Mr. X, who frequently leaves in the middle of the night carrying large suitcases.  Safer, who is homeschooled, convinces Georges to join him in exposing Mr. X and the two of them embark on their mission to uncover the truth. At the same time, Georges is welcomed into the boisterous household of Safer and his family, something he finds he needs as his parents are away, occasionally past his bedtime.

Unlike Stead's other books, this one has no supernatural elements, but her recurring theme of friendship and how it evolves is honestly evoked here. Georges has some growing up to do and he knows it, but he's also resentful of having to do so, which makes him endearing and utterly real. It's not difficult to imagine this kid. I like how occasional fun facts are delivered without cluttering up the story -- wild parrots in Brooklyn, a bodega owner who demonstrates math when he makes change, the "gay test" (something about a shorter finger)!  Stead's puzzle is mildly entertaining, unlike When You Reach Me (where it's fantastic!), but I thought the aha! moment was a little bit of a downer (kind of like Georges).  I did like the flutters of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window that listening to the book gave me.

Liar & Spy is read by Jesse Bernstein, a familiar reader from my years of listening to kids books.  He's not a narrator I seek out as a rule, but he does professional work, always.  There's a little New York in his youthful delivery that works nicely for young Georges.  Safer -- a character with somewhat hidden depths -- is voiced quietly and more maturely, while the annoying little sister Candy is read annoyingly in an appealing way. The short book moves along at a steady pace.

One thing makes this a little awkward in audio. There is a very interesting character, a classmate of Georges whom he calls Bob English Who Draws.  BEWD uses imaginative (or just plain mal-educated) spelling in the notes that he passes to Georges in class, and these are painstakingly spelled by Bernstein as he reads the novel. Fortunately, there aren't too many of these.

Stead's books straddle a fine line -- they are so evocative of New York, yet the New York they show isn't an inaccessible one to kids who've never been there. As a former Brooklyn-ite, I was mildly curious about where exactly Georges' neighborhood was.  But, really, it could be any neighborhood, anywhere. Her characters and situations are ones that nearly every kid would recognize.

[Georges' favorite part of Seurat's (whom he calls Sir-Ott) painting is the monkey on a leash in the foreground. Since to reproduce Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884 would render it insignificant, I found instead a study Sept singes, from the Musée du Louvre print collection.]

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Narrated by Jesse Bernstein
Listening Library, 2012.  4:41

Sunday, November 25, 2012


I recently read somewhere that Terry Pratchett is now dictating his books to an amanuensis making his lively and hilarious output even more appropriate for listening consumption.  This is certainly the case with his most recent book to hit our shores, Dodger, a Victorian romp which was fun from start to finish. Pratchett's story of a young scamp who makes good was a feast for at least three senses - ears, (mind's) eyes, and nose (although the smells so accurately described are not particularly festive).

The eponymous Dodger is a tosher, scouring London's stinky sewers for the treasures lost through its grates. He's pretty good at it, but he also fortunate enough to have made a friend of a Jewish watchmaker, Solomon, who offers him a safe, dry place to sleep (and store his stash) as long as he walks Solomon's incredibly oderiferous mutt, the aptly named Onan (and to click on that link will spoil one of Pratchett's silly jokes as the novel comes to a close). Late one night, raining cats and dogs, Dodger emerges from one of his toshing expeditions and is confronted by a scene that sets his blood aboil -- a young woman has leapt from a moving carriage, followed by two large men, who then begin beating her.  Seeing Dodger, she pleads for him to save her, and Dodger -- never one to disobey a beautiful (if bedraggled) lady -- complies. Even though he is ably holding his own in his fight with the two blackguards, when two other gentlemen appear in the street and enter the fray, the villains leap into their carriage and dash away. The two gentlemen prevail upon Dodger to help the lady to the warm and dry house of one of them nearby, and Dodger is introduced to the first of his new benefactors:  Charley Dickens and Henry Mayhew.

Secretly, Dodger vows to protect the lady (who later adopts the name of Simplicity), even though that revenge may bring down the British government.  Along the way, he encounters a number of familiar (or not so) characters (Sir Robert Peel, Joseph Bazalgette and Angela Burdett-Coutts, plus Her Majesty the Queen) who -- charmed and intrigued by this ambitious young man whose wit and cleverness enables him to overcome his humble beginnings -- aid him in his elaborate plan of revenge. It doesn't hurt that Dodger manages to disarm a certain barber who was interested in giving him a rather close shave, making him a hero to one and all in early Victorian London.  The city is a vivid character in itself -- the crowded streets, the unhealthy tenements, the quiet streets of the rich, and its sewers. Oh, its sewers -- I could feel and smell the muck, goo and well, shit.

This has to be among my favorite books (read or heard) this year. Like another one of his "non-Discworld" stories, Pratchett manages to address some serious subjects without ever losing his sense of the ridiculous.  For example, I heard the dog's name, said to myself, "isn't that ...?" and knew, I knew, the punchline was coming.  And when it did, it was completely worth the wait.  The puns and wit fly fast and furious; one hopes that Pratchett's next book will be about the redoubtable Solomon as he proves a font of knowledge and an excellent sidekick.  Dodger's rise is meteoric (he's kind of like a Horatio Alger hero), but it is well-deserved: his code is honorable (even if he just can't resist a gewgaw or two from Miss Burdett-Coutts' collection), and his cleverness is rightfully rewarded. He falls hard for Miss Simplicity (the weakest part of the story), but there's no doubt of a happily ever-after.

Like nearly all of Pratchett's novels, this one is narrated by Stephen Briggs. (Here, here and here is where I've heard him read Pratchett before.)  He's good; he's an excellent match with Pratchett's rapid-fire jokes, whiplashing plot developments and all-around silliness. The humor is always there, but there's also an underlying compassion and love of the characters. There's never a word out of place, and his characters are varied and consistently delivered. He's particularly good with Solomon's Yiddish inflections, as well as those of Dodger's fellow toshers. There is a scene where Dodger is interviewing his peers, along with a group of rather dim prostitutes, about whether they might have seen Simplicity's assailants that is just brilliant.

But, you know, I'd really like to hear someone else read this. Briggs' style doesn't change much from Pratchett to Pratchett -- he reads them all with that punchy, rapid delivery. It's funny, it's successful, but it's time for someone else.  I don't know who I'd suggest -- oh wait, yes I do.  Alan Cumming!  Barking brilliant (if I may say so myself)!  There are a couple Pratchett books that aren't narrated by Briggs, maybe I'll give one of them a whirl.

[Yes, I could have given you a picture of Dickens, or Peel, or Burdett-Coutts, or even Onan (well, perhaps not, but the dog is on the cover of the British version), but I opted for my very own Dodger: a three-legged cat who was named because he wasn't ... artful.]

Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Narrated by Stephen Briggs
Dreamscape Media, 2012.  10:31

Thursday, November 15, 2012

GEN 11

I'm pretty sure I must have read (or had read to me) Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was a young 'un, but all of my memories of this story are that of the fairly execrable 1968 movie with Dick Van Dyke, including the theme song -- the chorus of which I could probably sing in its entirety.  I liked listening to this knowing about James Bond (who I didn't know about in 1968), and really understanding how Fleming's imagination created both. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang includes Bond-ish villains, a Q-like leading man, and a very large explosion.

Inventor Caractacus Potts, retired from the Royal Navy, lives in genteel poverty with his wife (Mimsie) and twins Jeremy and Jemima. The family experiences an unexpected windfall when Commander Potts invents a candy called Toot Sweets and sells it to a local candy magnate named Lord Skrumshus. With some of their money, Potts purchases a junker, a dilapidated old heap called a Paragon Panther. Jeremy and Jemima are intrigued by the car's license plate, GEN 11. For several weeks, Commander Potts tinkers away at the car, and on the day it's fully repaired, the Potts decide to go on an outing to the beach. As the car starts up, it makes a unique sound -- "chitty chitty" as the starter turns over followed by a loud "bang bang" from the tailpipe and as the family motors off, the twins officially christen the car (cue the orchestra).

Alas, every other family has decided that they are going to the beach as well, and the Potts soon find themselves in a huge traffic jam (and this was 1964).  But when a knob on the dashboard lights up saying "pull this, stupid" [I think I'm remembering it correctly], and Commander Potts obeys ... well, you know what happens.

The child-snatching in the novel isn't nearly as creepy as that of the movie which makes it more all-ages, I think.  I liked that a novelistic circle is closed when the denouement takes place in a candy shop (albeit a French one). I liked that the book never comes out and tells us that GEN 11 = genie. I liked that that is all there is ... 110 pages, two hours twenty minutes.  I liked learning that the original illustrations were from John Burningham (Mr. Helen Oxenbury).  I found it quite touching that it was -- in a way -- Fleming's final gift to his young son.  And I loved listening to it read by someone clearly channeling a rambunctious bachelor uncle entertaining his nieces and nephews.

Regular readers here know my fondness for British drama (in movies, television and books), but I'm not at all keen on British sitcoms. So, I'd never heard of Andrew Sachs, the narrator, who found fame in a television program that I found not teddibly funny at all, Fawlty Towers. Sachs reads the novel beautifully. He has a warm speaking voice, and he reads the story quickly; but he never forgets that he's telling an immensely ridiculous story, so the narrator's asides are all perfectly timed. There's plenty of opportunity for over-the-top character studies in the novel, and Sachs goes to town with confident Caractacus, dense yet menacing mobsters, a sad sack used-car dealer, timid Mimsie, adventurous twins, and M. Bon-Bon.  But he is, in fact, most perfect as the car -- his wheezy "chitty chitty" followed by the pop of the "bang bang" will forever replace the lyrics of that song.

The opening credits of the audiobook declare that it is published by Imagination Studio, which evidently is an imprint of Listening Library (and this audiobook was published long enough ago that Jim Dale provides that audiobooks-are-great pitch he used to do at the end). It has the best use of generic music I have heard in a while (the last time was this, which I also enjoyed) -- with a short sprightly, kind-of circus-like clip between chapters, each one slightly different.

I've never been much of a Bond fan, but the Ian Fleming website tells me that there are new audiobooks of all of the Bond stories, each read by a different actor. Alas, these are not the editions available at my library, which are read by the prolific Simon Vance. I'm sure Vance is very good, but Dan Stevens, Bill Nighy, Damien Lewis!

[This image is one of John Burningham's from the original 1964 edition, subtitled The Magical Car. Could it be true that my library still owns four copies of this nearly 50-year-old book (I'm not at a place where I can check this)?]

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
Narrated by Andrew Sachs
Imagination Studio (Listening Library), 2003.  2:19

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weather underground

Like many other readers, Rebecca Stead was not on my radar as a children's author to watch until 2009, when I read her soon-to-be Newbery-Medal-winning When You Reach Me. Ever since, I've had her first book, First Light, on the one-day-I'll-read-this list and --  as I've been relying on downloadables to keep me in audiobooks (due to the unbelievably annoying ongoing unfixability of my computer) -- it rose to the top because it was available for checkout when I needed one.

Peter Solemn lives with his parents in a top-floor apartment in New York City. His father is a glacialogist specializing in climate change, and midway through the school year he receives a grant to study the melting ice in Greenland. Peter and his mother are invited along. At the age of 12, Peter is just starting to experience the debilitating headaches that have plagued his mother all his life, only Peter's headaches are accompanied by mysterious visions.

Thea (pronounced TAY-ah) lives near a huge underground lake in a place called Gracehope. She's been thinking more and more about the legend of how Gracehope came into being -- founded by a persecuted people who first fled England for Greenland, who decades later were forced into the settlement beneath the ice.  Thea wonders if it's time for the people of Gracehope to surface again, but the women in charge of the community have expressly forbidden it. But someone has left a map for Thea to find, a map that shows the path to the surface; and Thea -- along with her first cousin Matthias (the 'h' is silent in his name as well) -- takes her beloved sled dogs, the Chikchu, and heads off. A terrible accident occurs and Peter -- out on a trek of his own across the frozen landscape -- hears her dogs crying.

Stead's (rhymes with the past tense of read) story is told in alternating third-person voices.  From the beginning, you know that the paths of the two protagonists are going to cross (and that some revelations will arise from that meeting), but Stead doles out the clues in a naturalistic and slightly suspenseful way. These seemed overly obvious to me, but I think young readers will find them worth pursuing. The characters are fully realized -- all the way down to more minor ones like Peter's quirky friend Miles and his father's Inuit research assistant Jonas. The unusual setting is skillfully presented; I had a complete picture of what Gracehope (with its streets and walls of ice and that huge lake) looked like. The scene where Peter attempts to rescue the sled dogs in a blinding blizzard is tense and vivid in my memory.

I was impressed by Stead's ability to interweave the issue of the melting Greenland icecap into the story.  There are several scenes depicting the scientific process that are as interesting as the fantasy world of Gracehope.

Thankfully (although not surprisingly, Listening Library knows how to do audiobooks right), the novel is read by two narrators, David Ackroyd (heard here and here by me) and Coleen Marlo (here). Ackroyd really sounds too old and tired for Peter (if this is indeed him, he's over 70 years old), although he definitely has the narrator skills of natural characterization, varied pacing appropriate to the text, and authentic emotional interpretation. Marlo reads Thea's chapters with a naturalness and authority, providing flawless mini character studies for Gracehope's denizens -- particularly the many strong women of the First Line (descendants of the original Grace). Gracehope-ites all speak with a standard English accent, while both narratives were read with American inflections.  Unfortunately, neither narrator seems completely comfortable with the English accent, so the dialogue always sounds a bit stiff and artificial.

A word (well, several words) on downloadables. Normally I don't like listening to them as much as CDs, but maybe my ear is just getting used to them (or I'm making the best of a bad situation). They don't sound as tinny as they once did and lately I've not experienced the occasional glitches like the end of a disc cut off. Half of my audiobooks since mid-July (the date of the computer disaster) have been digital. I still listen to CDs at bedtime (a different book), which -- at 15-20 minutes per night -- can make for an awfully long time from beginning to end.  I want my Mac back! :'-(

[Among the many interesting things on the First Light website is an info bite telling me that Greenland forbids the importation of any dogs in order to keep their sled dogs' line pure. I wasn't ever really clear on how Stead's imagined Chikchu were different from Peter's sled dogs (except that they were different), but here's a 1912 photo of some generic sled dog puppies from the Library of Congress, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

First Light by Rebecca Stead
Narrated by David Ackroyd and Coleen Marlo
Listening Library, 2010.  7:04

I've been to London to visit the Queen

Anne Perry is almost frightening prolific, with about 70 books under her belt since she was first published in 1979. (Uncharitably, I simply cannot think of her without remembering this.)  I used to read her religiously, but now it's more of an occasional indulgence (about one book a year for the last ten years). Although I don't feel like she's going through the motions, the 25th (!) in her series featuring Victorian London policeman Thomas Pitt and his upper-class wife Charlotte, Buckingham Palace Gardens, offers few surprises.

A few books ago, Thomas Pitt ran afoul of his superiors at Scotland Yard and was assigned to investigate crimes against the state with Victor Narraway and the Special Branch. Early one morning in 1893, he is called by Narraway to Buckingham Palace. The bloody body of a prostitute -- throat and abdomen viciously slit open -- has been found in a linen closet. Edward, the Prince of Wales, had hosted a party the night before: entertaining four Victorian entrepreneurs eager for the Prince to support their grand plan to build a railroad stretching from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt.  Once the wives had gone to bed, the leader of the group, Cahoon Dunkeld (I continue to admire Perry for the intriguing names she provides her characters), arranged for a visit with some prostitutes. Two left, one did not. The Queen is due back in a few days and this unpleasant mess must be cleared up before her arrival.

Pitt and Narraway quickly conclude that the murder is one of the three railroad men (not Cahoon), but the evidence is contradictory and the gentlemen themselves obstructive. Even with the help of his housemaid Gracie, brought to the Palace to be Pitt's eyes and ears on the inside, Pitt cannot solve the puzzle before another death occurs.

Perry is clearly deeply enmeshed in her history, and she likes to explore the class divide (epitomized by the marriage of son-of-a-gamekeeper Pitt with socially connected Charlotte). She explores the internal lives (occasionally ad nauseum) of her characters, but also enjoys concocting an intricate puzzle. I've felt in reading the last few that her books are sometimes weighted down by everything she throws into them. I had this feeling in Buckingham Palace Gardens, while at the same time the denouement felt really rushed and overly reliant on coincidence. There's also some oddly enlightened Victorians in this novel who want to leave Africa for the Africans. I'm not even sure Westerners felt that way about Africa 100 years later.

Michael Page, a prolific audiobook narrator, reads this novel. Years ago I listened to him read an installment in another Perry series, but I've not heard him since I started keeping this blog [edited to add: Wrong! I listened to this.].  He has a very actor-y voice -- rich and resonant with lots of variation. He is very good at characterization -- the more obvious choices through social class, but I particularly admired the subtle differences between his voice for Pitt and for Narraway (the latter was quick, nasal and emphatic, Pitt speaks slower and slightly deeper). His women also sound female without being femmy (many a male narrator has failed in this area).  Page does substitute volume for emotion with certain characters, I found the bombastic and loud voice he gave to Cahoon to be earshattering upon occasion. Like Katherine Kellgren, he's an American who can put on a mean British accent (I think he's originally from the U.S. ... maybe not). It might be interesting to hear him read something in his own "native" tongue.

On my first trip to London in 1977, I read in some guidebook that if you approached the guards at the gate of Buckingham Palace and asked to sign the Queen's guestbook, you were permitted to enter and walk across the red gravel to that part of the building that fronts the inner courtyard. We entered a doorway, and sure enough, there was the guestbook awaiting my signature.  I wonder if you can still do that.

[The aerial view of Buckingham Palace, showing the gardens behind, was taken by Brendan and Ruth McCartney as part of the project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Buckingham Palace Gardens (Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, Book 25) by Anne Perry
Narrated by Michael Page
Brilliance Audio, 2008.  12:35

Thursday, November 1, 2012


I like a good art story.  Something like Susan Vreeland's work, or this audiobook that I enjoyed so much (or this one, not nearly as good). It might be why I like those trashy Gabriel Allon thrillers. I enjoy the mysterious book/manuscript genre as well -- like The Thirteenth Tale, or even A.S. Byatt's Possession.  After thinking about all these books, it seems clear that what I like is the contemporary mixing with the historical.  Which makes Jonathan Harr's nonfiction work The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece kind of a no-brainer in the will-I-like-this sweepstakes.

Harr's narrative begins in 1990 when two young art history graduate students, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, are given a research project to take a look at the provenance of two attributed-to Caravaggio paintings on the same subject, St. John the Baptist, to see if they could determine which was Caravaggio's and which was the copy.  In the course of their research, they stumbled upon a largely unknown archive at the crumbling estate of a powerful 16th century family, the Matteis. Ciriaci Mattei had been a patron of Caravaggio. While exploring this archive at the back of the Italian thigh (so to speak), in a small town called Recanati, Francesca and Laura came upon mention of another Caravaggio painting, lost for 200 years: "The Taking of Christ," depicting the moment when Judas kissed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to identify him to the soldiers poised to arrest him.  Caravaggio scholars knew of the painting, but no one knew where it had gone.

Francesca and Laura keep digging and track "The Taking of Christ" -- at some point attributed to a Caravaggisti named Gerrit Von Honthorst -- to an auction house in Scotland where it vanished from written record sometime in the late 1700s. (The records were lost in a fire in the 20th century.)  Disappointed, Francesca and Laura agree to write an article for an Italian art journal.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, Ireland, a transplanted Italian conservator, Sergio Benedetti, is visiting -- with a colleague from the National Gallery of Ireland -- a Jesuit residence to look at some of their paintings.  The Jesuits were renovating their community house and thought they'd see if any of their paintings were worth restoring. One painting catches Sergio's eye. According to Harr, he believed instantly that the painting was the lost Caravaggio, but it took a little while for him to convince his superiors. Sergio transports the painting to the conservators' studio at the Gallery and begins work to prove his case.  And while a close examination of the painting can provide some of the clues to its provenance, he's got  to create a paper trail as well.  And -- in the course of his research -- Sergio finds the article that Francesca and Laura wrote.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  There's a lot more in the book that I don't want to explain here, because you should read it for yourself.  Harr does a great job with this story -- building suspense in a way that feels natural even though we know that it all ended well -- and intersperses the narrative with a bare bones, yet vivid, biography of the painter.  Caravaggio was a brawler, and when Harr described the rapidly escalating argument he had over the affections of a prostitute with members of a thuggish clan who ruled one Roman neighborhood, I felt like I'd been plopped right into Act One of Romeo & Juliet.  It's too bad Shakespeare (born 1564) didn't know about Caravaggio (born 1571). He clearly would have made a great tragic hero!

Harr's characters make the story -- young art historians, not the rock stars, plug away and get their moments of glory. It's clear Harr has a soft spot for Francesca, but he's somewhat tougher on Sergio. His supporting players are just as interesting: the elderly British art historian Sir Denis Mahon (pronounced Mahhn) or a smarmy Italian journalist named Fabio Isman.  In Harr's hands the slog of research is not a slog (the decrepit Palazzo Mattei on a dreary winter day is crystal clear), and the trade of restoration is fascinating. Even though I sought out an image of "The Taking ...," Harr's descriptions told me where to look.  (Caravaggio included himself in this painting, as he often did.  He's on the far right, holding the lantern.)

Campbell Scott reads this book (heard here before by me).  His low-key style suits nonfiction, as he steadily but patiently tells us the story of this paper chase.  There is a fair amount of dialogue in the story, and Campbell does a little bit of subtle voicing -- a hint of Italian-accented English for Francesca and Sergio, aristocratic English for Sir Denis, a bit of an Irish lilt for two other employees of the Irish National Gallery, including its director, Raymond Keaveney (which my Italian-influenced brain was spelling Cavini -- which was very funny to me at the time). None of the accents were very pronounced, and I can't say that Scott was confident in all his characters, but I enjoyed listening to him read.  He has an interesting voice -- deep and carefully enunciated -- that's entirely pleasant to listen to.

The audiobook has an added extra that I like: a brief interview with the author. Harr explains how he came upon the story and how he turned it into first an article in the New York Times Magazine, and eventually this book.  I always appreciate this inside glimpse into an author's process.

Another version of "The Taking ..." is located at a museum in Odessa, Ukraine. Since the recovery of the Irish-owned painting, Harr explains that scholars now believe that the Odessa version is a very good copy.  (It's also quite damaged.)  Now I see -- from trolling the web -- that this painting was stolen in 2008 (three years after The Lost Painting was published) and recovered two years later. Which brings to mind that recent art theft in the Netherlands, and the ongoing loss experienced by the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum. Why do people do this? Because there's always a need to have what no one else can, I guess.

[This image of "The Taking of Christ" was retrieved from the National Gallery of Ireland's website.]

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr
Narrated by Campbell Scott
Books on Tape, 2005.  6:22