Saturday, June 30, 2012

Off with his head!

It was difficult to listen to C.J. Sansom's Dissolution without having James Frain in my head every time the mystery novel mentioned Thomas Cromwell. I really want to read (eye or ear, I haven't decided) Hilary Mantel's trilogy about the Vicar General as well, but I fear suffering from the same problem. Ah, the hazards of watching v. reading/listening. This is why it's important, children, to read a book before you see the movie/TV show. Cromwell's presence in the novel is a somewhat menacing one, but the whole novel is kind of menacing now that I think about it.

Dissolution is the first in Sansom's series featuring hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, bravely representing the rule of law in the somewhat lawless England of King Henry VIII. Shardlake is a fervent Anglican -- hence the uneasy alliance with Cromwell -- but he doesn't believe torture and hanging are the solution for ridding the country of its papists, they just have to obey the law of the land. Among these laws was one dissolving England's many Catholic monasteries -- but when the decapitated body of the agent sent by Cromwell to implement the dissolution is found at St. Donatus in Scarnsea, Cromwell sends Shardlake on a mission to discover what happened.

Shardlake, accompanied by Mark Poer -- an impetuous young lawyer he is mentoring, discovers that the monks and laypeople residing at St. Donatus are hiding a multitude of secrets, not just who took a sword and killed the agent in a manner disturbingly similar to the death of Anne Boleyn. Several more bodies turn up during Shardlake's investigations -- from which he suffers tremendous guilt -- before he uncovers the truth.

The book is quite atmospheric; in classic mystery fashion a snowstorm isolates the monastery early on and the bitter cold, snow and the surrounding frozen (and then melting) marshland add a frisson of chill -- both actual and metaphoric. I enjoyed the multiple meanings of dissolution that underlie the narrative. There is a large cast of characters, very few of whom have any redeeming qualities. Shardlake is a sympathetic hero for the most part -- his disability (referred to in this way several times in the novel, which struck me as odd) has made him shy and self-conscious, but his staunch Anglicanism can be a bit trying to 21st century readers. I certainly believe in the author's research (he's got a PhD in History), as I learned much about the dissolution. The mystery is a pretty simple one (except for how), but following Shardlake's path to the solution was somewhat entertaining as his own prejudices often blur his otherwise sharp mind. I enjoy historical mysteries and see no reason not to read further in this series.

Dissolution is narrated by Steven Crossley. I've heard him read once and enjoyed his work a lot. He is very good here as well. Shardlake narrates his own story and his despair and weariness are vivid in Crossley's reading. He confidently creates individual voices for the novel's other characters that accurately reflect that person's motivations and social status. The standouts include Mark, whose callow immaturity is perfectly voiced with volume and a high register; the Catholic Moor Brother Guy, the infirmarian, with growly Spanish-inflected speech; Prior Mortimus, whose sadistic nature is clear in the anger with which he speaks; and Brother Jerome, a monk with a secret. He lost his mind and his strong body while undergoing torture in the Tower of London and his querulous, grating voice makes everyone pay attention to his ramblings.

Back to Hilary Mantel. Based on the evidence, it'll be three years before the final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy will be published.  According to this article, its title is The Mirror and the Light. So, wait for 2015 and read them all in one fell swoop? Or should I start now?  I have a personal copy of Wolf Hall and right now there is only one hold (!) on the audio of Bring Up the Bodies. But I've got that Morris reading ... not to mention the audiobooks lined up.

Oy! If only it weren't such a cliche: So many books, so little time. Let me add ... so distracted! A search brought up mention of a publication written by J.J. Wright for the National Home Reading Union in 1891 called So Many Books! So Little Time! What To Do? (Wright's book is discussed in an article [p. 201] by Stephen Arata from the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Studies, which I was able to view in it's entirety via JSTOR but I don't know if that's because I'm at a library computer, so you might also find it by Googling Wright and "so many books" and looking for a pdf "On Not Paying Attention.") Although this article explains that Wright was trying to help working men and women find the time to read in the spirit of late-Victorian self-improvement, it's nice to know that some things don't change.

[This print of Cromwell was created probably a century after Cromwell's death by Wenzel Hollar, who appears to have been influenced by Hans Holbein's portrait. It lives in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
Narrated by Steven Crossley
Recorded Books, 2011.  14:37

Friday, June 29, 2012

Audiobook Week: Listen Up!

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

No secrets here!  I read book reviews and think, hmmm … wonder if that’s available in audio?  If it is and it’s a narrator that I like, it definitely goes on the listening list, rather than the reading one.  GillianFlynn’s Gone Girl is an example of this:  I heard about the book, then noticed it was in audio, and was doubly intrigued to see the narrators: Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne (I can hear him as the callow young husband right now!).  Of course, there are 75 (and rising) holds on this at my library and it hasn’t even arrived yet, so it will be awhile … but I’ve learned patience.  My turn will come.

I use the Jukebox as a way of seeing what other bloggers might think of something I’m considering listening to.  And I read the library review journals for ideas as well.  I take a look at the Jukebox’s Solid Gold offerings and select stuff from there based on author, story, and/or narrator.  On very rare occasions, something just pops out at me from the shelf.

I don’t buy books in any format, which is one of the reasons I’m patient. All good things come to those who can wait.  And it’s not like I don’t have another audiobook waiting at home.

I’ve been bloggily absent from much of Audiobook Week (preparing everything in advance and checking in briefly for linkage purposes) because I’ve been on a road trip following ALA’s Annual Conference.  I’m sure it’s gone swimmingly (and maybe I even won something!).  Thanks to Devourer of Books for creating another terrific week of audiobook goodness.  No need to stop now – there are 51 other weeks that are good for listening too!

The old math

A colleague brought back a single mp3 disc of Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One from this spring's Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia. For audiobook publishers to give stuff away at conferences like the print book publishers do is a very good sign. For this reason alone I needed to listen to it. I’m still not sure how I got the disc's digits to download onto my computer (because it didn’t go quite smoothly), but I did, and I listened. Meh.

Carry the One is one of those novels that travels quickly through time – the author providing us with historical touchstones (Rwandan genocide, Desert Storm, 9/11, 2008 election) in each chapter so we can easily gauge how many years have passed. I hate this … I hate the jumps in time and I hate the way these narcissistic characters so glibly include these events awkwardly into conversation. It follows three siblings – Carmen, Alice and Nick Kenney – in their 20s at Carmen’s slightly shotgun wedding in 1983 in rural Wisconsin – quickly taking them to Chicago for most of their subsequent lives. Alice and the groom’s sister Maude have a sexual encounter during the reception and Nick and his girlfriend Olivia take a staggering amount of narcotics before all four of them (plus a musician friend) pile in the car at 3 a.m. to drive back to Chicago. A young girl dashes into the road in front of the car and is struck and killed. Olivia, the driver, willingly goes to prison, and the three siblings wade into the rest of their lives doomed to “carry the one” of the dead girl. Or so Alice ponderously tells us: “Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.”  I must be stupidly literal: What does that mean???

Along the way, Carmen becomes a single mother to precocious Gabe and devotes herself to liberal social action, losing an ear at a protest in front of an abortion clinic. Alice pines for Maude off and on, since Maude can’t bring herself to come out; she also becomes a well-known artist, surpassing her famous father. Nick – a gifted astronomer – kicks the drugs for a few years in order to stay married to Olivia, but soon he enters a cycle of rehab and relapse continually enabled by his sisters. Alone among them, he makes a connection with the dead girl’s mother.

Each chapter gives us a glimpse into their navel-gazing lives at a certain point, but the references to their guilt about the accident surface only occasionally, almost as if the author didn’t want us to forget that this is the premise of her novel. It is difficult to like any of them very much, and I’m not sure that Anshaw really does either – using them instead to forward a political agenda, or provide an ironic commentary on their sad, self-centered, flawed lives. Wait! The Kenneys are my age – it’s my sad, self-centered, flawed life! I don’t think that’s really why I didn’t care for it; more accurately, it’s that I didn’t care.

The writing is excellent; Anshaw can describe a setting or a person, or even a feeling with a few deft strokes: (cribbing from the New York Times review) “A small threat of rain was held to a smudge at the horizon.” Her dialogue can be wickedly humorous. But beautiful writing isn’t enough. Regarding audiobooks, I once read/heard that audio works best for plot-driven stories, so perhaps the episodic nature of Carry the One isn’t a good choice for listening.

It is read by Renée Raudman, a narrator I actually try to avoid (which is exactly what I said the last time I listened to her … see first paragraph for my reason for listening to her here). While her broad Midwestern accent fits this Chicago-set novel, there’s still her serious ‘zh’-for-s problem, and a lot of weird vowel sounds – “light bolb” and the like. Her reading is straightforward and natural, and her characterizations of Carmen and Alice sound completely authentic. Occasionally, she will read with a lot of emphasis and enthusiasm that doesn’t always mesh with the text. And there were a few non-English-speaking accents that come across awkwardly. Ultimately, Raudman's narration was just more of the same in the long snooze that this book was for me.

I used to suck books like this up – right about the time that Carmen was getting married – mostly about women finding their way through the thickets of adulthood, learning valuable lessons along the way and reaching fulfillment at the end. Maybe that’s what bugs me most about this book – there’s something old-fashioned about it and not in a good way. It’s time to move on.

[The graphic is “an old symbol for arithmetic addition, from the first letter of the Italian word più” (which means more). It was created by mintz_l and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
Narrated by Renée Raudman
Tantor Audio, 2012. 9:14 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Audiobook Week: What Makes a Good Narrator?

Who are your favorite narrators and why? What do you look for in a narrator? Have a preference between male or female narrators?
Alternate suggestion: Narration preferences – single narrator, multiple narrators, full cast, etc.

The more I listen, the fewer favorites I seem to have.  You know that trope about the book you are reading/writing now is your favorite.  With a few exceptions, I feel that way about narrators.  When I don’t like a narration, the next book of theirs has to be pretty darn intriguing for me to listen to that person again. 

Here’s some favorites from the last few months (add these to the ones I mentioned in Monday’s post):  Christopher Evan Welch, Jenna Lamia, Katherine Kellgren and Will Patton.  Then there’s my main narrator man, Dion Graham (Voice of Choice 2012 – yay!).  I feel connected with Dion because I championed him (much earlier) in my blog and he was so gracious and reached out to me.  Not in a million years would I pick up Miles Davis’ Autobiography to read, not in a million years.  But with Dion Graham reading it, I’m going to give it a try.

I don’t need a narrator who turns on the fireworks with legions of character voices – although it is a vastly entertaining feat worth mentioning, particularly if they are all human! I’d much rather hear the emotional story of each character – through timbre, pausing and pacing, a voice that changes with what is going on in the novel. 

Here’s what I said about Charles Leggett reading A Pale Blue Eye: “There is an underlayer of unexplained grief.” About Simon Prebble reading one of Anthony Horowitz’s teen novels:  “He can infuse some serious schlock with true emotion: I suffer listening to Prebble read Horowitz.”  Jenny Stirlin reading Doomsday Book: “Sterlin is riveting, with a voice full of compassion and tension.” And Dion Graham, reading Peace, Locomotion: “You can hear the undercurrent of laughter or sadness every time Lonnie signs off his letters.”

I can nothing but admire people who can deliver these vividly real emotional arcs using nothing but their voice.  Bravo!

No need to answer the other parts of this question – I’ll listen to ‘em all.

Round trip

I don't think it was the title that made me curious about Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The audiobook has been in my possession for quite some time and I can't even say what motivated me to choose it from the dozen (!) or so library audiobooks currently residing on my home bookshelf. It was probably something as prosaic as length. "Oh, I need something in the six-to-eight-hour range." Such is the way we select books to listen to.

This book, which I understand started out as a web-novel (the first [only?] to be awarded the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy), is the story of September (who knows that you shouldn't give out your full name in Fairyland), a bored and lonely girl possibly living during World War II in Omaha, Nebraska. I say possibly because if the actual date was mentioned, I missed it; but her father is away at war and her mother works long hours in a factory building planes. She reads a lot -- hence her knowledge of the workings of Fairyland -- so when the Green Wind appears at her window and asks if he can escort her there, she takes him up on his offer. Something is amiss in Fairyland and September is the only one who can fix it.

She meets some new friends along the way, most notably a Wyvern (who seems pretty sure that his father was a library) named A Through L, a dragon-like creature (pictured on the cover) whose wings -- like those of many of the magical creatures -- have been chained by Fairyland's ruler, the Marquess. She meets the Marquess, who threatens her new friend with torture and death unless September can retrieve a talisman (a sword ... which turns out to be a wrench). September sets off on her journey to find the talisman, building her ship -- among the many ways she travels on her quest.

As befits a serially published novel, each complicatedly named chapter ("In Which September Meets the Marquess At Last, Argues Several Valid Points But Is Pressed Into Royal Service Anyway, Being Consoled Only By the Acquisition of a Spoon and a New Pair of Shoes.") features a discrete part of September's journey. There's not much chapter-ending suspense here which would make the book work well as a classroom readaloud (or a road-trip book). I've seen it compared to Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and The Phantom Tollbooth.  There's lots of wordplay and interesting vocabulary (the novel's very first word is Exeunt), and those kids who read and enjoy a lot of fantasy may be amused by September's book knowledge of how things are supposed to play out there, but the story kind of fell flat for me. The details are all here -- descriptions of creatures and landscapes and many homages to fantasies that have gone before -- but I had trouble digging out an interesting story from it. There's nothing new about the story -- girl travels to Fairyland to save it and does -- it's the telling that's unusual. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for the telling.

Or maybe it was the narrator, the author herself. Let me begin by saying that she wasn't bad, but she doesn't do much to enliven her story. Granted, you don't want inexperienced author-narrators attempting to jazz things up (oh, the horror!), but I found her reading style too neutral and soporific in the extreme. Her voice is low to begin with and she reads with almost no inflection. I often had difficulty hearing what she was saying, and occasionally could not understand her altogether. In the category of what-bothered-me-the-most: she seemed to swallow the S of September, which often sounded to me like Eptember. I think I understand why the publisher made this choice -- the novel's narrator is wholly omniscient and comments frequently on September's decisions and journey (which can make for a very fun listen) -- but a more lively narrator (the kind from the sound booth) would have gone a long way in this audiobook.

A sequel is due out this fall, catching up at least one of first novel's hanging threads (here's a cryptic clue: Peter Pan anyone?). And while I'm riffing on Peter Pan, the obvious narrator is the talented Mr. Dale ... but he probably costs a lot! Who else? I don't want to pile on, but there's Alan Cumming, Jayne Entwhistle, Katherine Kellgren, or Bahni Turpin.

[The artist Ana Juan provided some trippy spot illustrations for the print version and this is one of them, titled "Thy Mother's Sword." The only place I could find it and save it was at Amazon. While I remember the sword, I can't recollect the mushrooms.]

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Narrated by Catherynne M. Valente
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 7:16

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Take me home, country roads

Re-reading a book for me is an extremely rare occurrence, done recently for the esteemed Mr. Potter plus the occasional audiobook that needed to be listened to where I had already eye-read the book. But 15 years ago, I read Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and then I re-read it about a year or so later. Cried both times.  I never did get around to his second book, but when I needed a book with a precise time frame for a recent road trip, I went straight to his third, Nightwoods.  And even though I knew the outlines of the story, the whole thing surprised me a little ... and not always in a good way.

It's the 1960s in an isolated community in the North Carolina mountains. Luce, who has lived there all her life, acts as caretaker to a broken-down resort but the owner has recently died. Also recently dead is Luce's sister, Lily, murdered by her husband who was acquitted at his trial through the timely convergence of a shady lawyer and an inexperienced prosecutor. Lily's two young children -- who witnessed the murder -- are now in Luce's loving custody, even though she really doesn't think she'll ever bond with them. Dolores and Frank don't speak, show a somewhat frightening predilection for fire (they may have burned down the resort owner's cabin) and kill a few of Luce's chickens. But Luce -- who was raped as a young woman -- seems determined to show them that at least part of their world can be a safe place. But when Lily's husband, Bud, comes searching for the twins because he thinks they know where a stash of money is, no one in that small Appalachian community is truly safe.

So much of this was a good book: Vivid characters who come alive through dialogue or backstory, a unique setting, palpable suspense on a bunch of different levels, humor, a tender, tentative romance. As my traveling companion said, given Cold Mountain you can't be completely sure that it's all going to end well. And you didn't know until the very end. But it was also really melodramatic, with a whole lot of over-the-top literary descriptions of both behavior and setting that bogged down the story. While listening, I paid close attention to Frazier's lengthy descriptions believing that I would need this knowledge again but more often than not, it was a description for the sake of fancy words. It's a relatively short novel (250 pages), but it could have been a whole lot shorter.  

The actor Will Patton narrates Night-woods. He's just about perfect, with his soft, raspy Southern-tinged speech that moseys along in a rhythmic, good-old-boy (in a good way) pace that beautifully mirrors the setting. Within that quiet and softness though, Patton delivers the novel's tensions with a varied pace and well-placed emphases. He doesn't read fancy -- no dramatic characters, no femmy women, and mercifully no childish children (not much of a challenge since Dolores and Frank are practically mute). But he has an emotional feel for the story that sounds absolutely genuine. He helped me (although not completely) from getting too bogged down in the overloaded prose, sometimes it's best to let someone read for you! I've enjoyed listening to him in the past (most recently here), so maybe I'll seek him out again.

As I was listening, I was thinking about Cold Mountain, which made me think about the movie Cold Mountain and I could not for the life of me remember who played Inman. Ultimately, this didn't matter, because I had no difficulty summoning up Inman from the book. But now that I check imdb, I see what a great group of actors were in that movie (with a few exceptions) ... what went wrong?

["Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area as seen from mile marker 412 on the Blue Ridge Parkway" was taken by Ken Thomas and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier
Narrated by Will Patton
Books on Tape, 2011. 8:46

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Audiobook Week: So You Want to Review Audiobooks ...

Discuss the essentials of audiobook reviewing. What do you make sure to include? What do you want to see when you read other people’s reviews?

The essential of audiobook reviewing is a discussion of the narration (duh!).  When this is just a sentence at the end of a review or a blog post (and I see this more often than I like), that’s not a review of the audiobook.  For my own posts, I always include a (hopefully, sometimes I get carried away, particularly with books I’ve enjoyed) brief synopsis that doesn’t give away the story, with a little bit about how and why I liked (or didn’t) the book.  Then, I address the particulars of the narration – how the reader’s voice sounds, does s/he create characters and how successful are they, are there any glaring errors, what else does the reader bring to the story, like a sense of tension or genuine emotions or singing (love the singing!).  I also like to at least mention any other aspects (good and bad) of the production that contribute to its audio-ness -- like sound effects, incidental music, author or narrator commentary/interview, or anything that acknowledges that you are listening and not reading the book.

I also view my posts as essays (which may bore everyone but me), so I like to find links  and illustrations (that’s also the librarian in me, as I must cite my sources) that augment the experience.  I also will discuss any personal background that I bring to that particular book (again, this is probably just interesting to me).  This makes my posts occasionally somewhat lengthy, and since I don’t thoroughly read nearly as many blog posts as I scan, I have no problem knowing my readers just scan mine.

Pulp fiction

I used to have this daily fight with my mother, who strongly believed in the value of a good breakfast.  I absolutely hated the pulp that accumulated on the top of the glass of orange juice, to the point of gagging as I tried to drink it down.  She wouldn’t remove it, saying it was good for me.  (I was convinced, of course, that all my friends were drinking Tang.)  I’ve had a love/hate relationship with oranges ever since:  Love the sweetness, hate the pulp (which includes the gucky stuff from the peel that stays on the orange and those “wrappers” that enclose each segment).  Joanne Rocklin’s odd little novel, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street, took me back to those mornings. 

There is an empty lot on Orange Street, a short block in a neighborhood somewhere in Southern California.  The only orange tree left from a family-owned orchard thrives in that lot and draws the half-dozen families living on the block to hang out, play, dream, climb, birdwatch, bury treasures or dig them up.  One morning, when a neon-orange traffic cone appears on the street in front of the tree’s lot, the neighbors are a little curious, a little worried, a little disturbed.  The block’s kids – Ali, Leandra, Bunny (the three members of the Girls with Long Hair Club), along with Robert, and Ali’s little brother Edgar – as well as the crazy old lady, Mrs. Snoops (not her real name) spend the titular day hanging out in the neighborhood, and thinking about their own young concerns:  Ali’s laughing, happy brother has been silent since surgery for a brain tumor, Bunny is afraid her mother won’t return from her many business trips, Leandra is angry that her parents are expecting another baby, and Robert – who wants to be a magician – is having trouble connecting with his newly divorced father.  Mrs. Snoops has a tendency to call 9-1-1 to report the “murder of plants,” and spends a lot of time remembering the past, when the orange grove and her best friend were on Orange Street; sometimes she can’t tell the difference between then and now.  But when a “mysterious man” appears on Orange Street, the neighbors understand the meaning of the orange cone and it’s not good.

The novel is very short (just over four hours) and episodic in nature.  Even though it takes place over a 36-hour period, it goes way back in time with Mrs. Snoops and even before to the origins of the orange grove itself.  Rocklin can create characters with just a few paragraphs, and the stories flow effortlessly from one to another.  On the other hand, there’s so much packed into the slender novel that it feels very scattered.  As a listener, I initially felt quite muddled as the novel jumped from character to character to inanimate object (the tree itself), but it didn’t take very long for me to figure out how things were working out.  It was only after I finished that I realized that the book includes a map of Orange Street (which you can find when you “look inside” at Amazon).  It’s an extremely quiet novel – which means those who crave action and lots of plot are likely not to enjoy it.  I enjoyed it, and it’s probably a really good book for discussion.

The jazz vocalist Lisa Baney narrates the book.  She’s got a smoky voice that works well for the novel’s omniscient narrator who peeks into each house on Orange Street and takes us back and forth over time.  It would be difficult to create separate voices for each of the novel’s many characters and she doesn’t attempt it, instead opting for vocal changes to indicate young or old, male or female that are all pretty standard.  She does toss on an “old-lady” quaver for Mrs. Snoops which I didn’t particularly care for, but overall, it’s a good listen. 

It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished this, but I’m remembering a moment where I’d wish Baney had chosen to sing (may have been a copyright issue).  Elsewhere in the book, she is given the opportunity to rap – courtesy of Manny, little Edgar’s nanny, who makes up verse in response to a question from Robert – and she gives relaxed, jazzy performance.  There are a lot of narrators who sound uncomfortable when asked to read music lyrics or poetry; Baney is not among them.  I’d listen to her read again.

Amongst everything else that goes on during our day on Orange Street, Rocklin offers a brief history of the Valencia orange.   I bought a couple a few days later, and although I had to fight my ocd fastidiousness, I did indeed find them citrus-y and very, very sweet.

[The traffic cone image was created by paperdog2005 and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin
Narrated by Lisa Baney
Listening Library, 2011. 4:10

Monday, June 25, 2012

Audiobook Week: My Audiobook Year

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.

Nothing really new to report here.  I’ve been listening for more than a decade (and blogging audiobooks for five years), I like all kinds of books although I’m more partial to fiction, I’m a critical listener but I don’t really hate any narrator (there are just some I think more than twice about listening to).  Since leaving YALSA’s audiobook selection committees, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to as many adult books as kids and teen.  I track my reading by a calendar year and in 2011, about one-third of my listening was adult.  So far this year, it’s been about half and half.  I listened to almost 732 hours of books last year … to date in 2012, I’m up to 280 hours (yikes! I’m way behind).

I also got involved with Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program this year, which has generously provided me with copies of audiobooks that I might otherwise not be able to get my hands on (my library has chosen not to purchase them for one reason or another). This must be a colossal amount of work for the Audiobook DJ and Rockinbear, and I am grateful for their efforts!

For the first time this past year, I shared audiobooks with another listener during some road trips.  Those intensive, four- or five-hour stretches are really amazing, but I’ve got to learn how to pause the player in my friends’ Priuses!  Listening doesn’t keep you from wanting to talk, but the books always make for more interesting conversation.  I did glom onto a few new narrators that I’d like to hear more:  Jonathan Aris, Wendy Carter, Ralph Cosham, and Kristine Hvam; plus I enjoyed reunions with Steven Boyer, Alan Cumming, LukeDaniels and Jenny Sterlin.

I’m not sure I’d know what to do if I didn’t have an audiobook going.

He liked her best when she was unconscious

A few weeks ago, Terry Gross reprised some interviews she'd had with John Updike, in celebration of the 80th birthday of the author, who died in 2009. He was very, very funny, and it made me think of my senior AP English class where we read -- in 1974 -- Rabbit, Run.  At 17, I absolutely hated this book -- it totally riled all my naive and unformed feminism -- but nearly 40 (eek!) years later, I find myself utterly bewildered what my teacher -- a woman I liked and admired -- could have possibly thought we'd get out of a book about a man who has found that nothing about his adult life measures up against the freedom and success he knew in high school.  We could not wait to shake the dust of high school from our platform shoes.  What do you mean it gets no better than this?

So, reader, I fired up the Interlibrary Loan machine (thank you Aurora Public Library), and obtained an audio copy.  Not the revelation I thought it would be -- have I not changed much? -- but at least I understood Rabbit a little better.  I still don't like him, but it's hard to like anyone in this novel so at least he has company.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is 26 years old.  When we meet him, he is revisiting his youthful (and he is so very old) self as he horns in on a bunch of teenagers playing pick-up basketball.  He lives with his wife, Janice, and their toddler son (conceived before their marriage) in semi-domestic squalor in fictional Mount Judge, Pennsylvania.  Janice is expecting a second child, but can't seem to muster the energy to do anything except drink heavily and watch television.  Rabbit, who declined to work for his used-car-salesman father-in-law, demonstrates a vegetable peeler at the local department store.  But coming home after the game, he finds Janice barely sober and is sent off to pick up their son (at his parents' house) and his car (at her parents'); instead he gets in the car and just drives away, getting all the way to West Virginia before turning around and heading home.

He calls up his old basketball coach, Mr. Tothero, in the hopes of a place to sleep.  Tothero encourages him to come on a double date with his questionable girlfriend and her equally questionable friend, Ruth Leonard.  In the course of the evening, Ruth tells Rabbit she's having a little trouble making the rent and Rabbit gives her some money.  She takes him back to her apartment where they have sex, although Rabbit insists that no birth control be used.  He lives there with Ruth for the next few months, despite ongoing counseling (in the form of golf games) from Janice's family's priest, Jack Eccles.  But when Eccles tells him that Janice is having the baby, Rabbit returns to her -- not knowing that Ruth is now pregnant as well (duh!) -- setting in motion the novel's final, tragic actions.

So maybe Mrs. McCarthy had us read this because she wanted us to appreciate the inventively descriptive language Updike uses.  It's extremely vivid and is actually quite pleasurable to listen to since you have no trouble mustering up the images so lyrically described here. A couple striding out of a West Virginia diner, or a rhododendron garden lovingly preserved by an elderly widow, or a coffin being lowered into a grave.

Unfortunately, this descriptive language extends to the characters who populate this novel -- Updike spares no one in his exposés of their flawed bodies, their ugly clothing, the mostly unhappy expressions on their faces.  Every time he would describe a woman, he was utterly cruel in his appraisal.  Call me oversensitive, but did he have to keep harping on thighs, lines and the nastiness in their voices (mostly when they were challenging Rabbit on one bit of behavior or another)?  And when they didn't want to have sex, ooh boy ... this really sent Rabbit into paroxysms of plaintive self-pity.  The icing on the cake was my post's title, something Rabbit thinks towards the end of the novel as he looks down at his sleeping wife, but I think I'm safe in saying that he feels that way about most women.

But what does all that fancy language add up to? Fancy language for the sake of literariness, or does it give me deeper insight into the drama unfolding in Rabbit Angstrom's life?  To me, it felt like two different novels -- the story of the self-absorbed manchild whose reprehensible response to problems is to run away and the vivid depiction of an insular middle class community who -- for some reason -- wish to save Rabbit from himself.  Yes, it's incisive social commentary on post-war manhood facing the upheavals to come, but he's so unappealing to my female brain (both teen- and middle-aged) that I just don't care.  Few books are a waste of time, but the only reason I'm glad I read this is to say I have.

Arthur Morey reads the book.  I've heard him read just once before and it was a book that totally stayed with me (I actually listened to it twice).  He's a subtle narrator, there's not a lot of drama in his reading and he lingers over Updike's mellifluous prose to make sure we hear every word.  As a listener, I felt confident that Morey was going to see me through this annoying novel, so I was content to keep listening.  When Rabbit, Run inevitably hurtles towards tragedy, there was palpable tension as he set that scene.   He makes an interesting choice in voicing Rabbit -- his register is quite high for a male character (and often seems higher than the women he is conversing with) and it's edged with panic, even when Rabbit is at his most cocky.

I wonder what else is worth revisiting from high school and college reading.  Huck Finn?  I should (but I've never heard of any of these narrators!)  The Water-Method Man? Another book I hadn't a prayer of understanding when I read it, but I'm pretty sure there's better John Irving out there. The odd 19th century novel, Coningsby? There's always Middlemarch (31 hours).

[I'm sure that the 1955 Ford in which Rabbit makes his initial escape didn't look as nice as this Fairlane taken by Lars-Göran Lindgren and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Narrated by Arthur Morey
Books on Tape, 2008.  12:06

Friday, June 22, 2012

Second childhood

It’s funny the things you remember from the iconic books of your childhood. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was a book I read over and over as an elementary school kid, but my overwhelming response upon revisiting it as an adult was gak! What a load of sentimental claptrap! I’m kind of afraid to approach the Little House books (also read and re-read) now, and when I had to chance to listen to Little Women, I approached it with some trepidation as well. I heard some things that surprised me, but mostly was pleased with the robust – shall I say even feminist – story and characters that have stood the test of time.

On the other hand, I was quite disappointed that this copy of Little Women ends prematurely – pretty much before all the bits that I remember. My print copy of Little Women has a Part One and a Part Two (and so does the Gutenberg Project's), but evidently Louisa May Alcott wrote two completely separate books – Little Women (1868), immediately followed – because her publisher begged her for a sequel (some things never change) -- by Good Wives (1869). I’ve now got an audio version of the second half (different publisher and narrator) waiting for me to check out because – well, because it’s not Little Women without Beth doing you-know-what and Jo finding her literary voice (and Professor Bhaer). I shall not speculate in this forum why AudioGO decided to publish the two novels separately, but I would encourage the company to put them back together the way they belong.

For my few readers who are unfamiliar with this novel, Little Women tells the story of the March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – living in somewhat straitened circumstances due to their father’s poor investments.  Mr. March is off with the Union Army, while Mrs. March (Marmee) keeps hearth and home together. In a letter Mr. March instructs his girls to be good little women and that’s pretty much all that happens. Each girl has a unique personality – with faults and goodness both – and during the course of the year their father is away, their goodness mostly grows while their faults are acknowledged and perhaps repaired. Tragedy brushes close, but does not alight (I had to toss in some 19th century language), a true friend (next door neighbor Laurie) is found and the eldest discovers love.

Along the way, Marmee dispenses the occasional bit of wisdom, encouraging her girls to grow up to be strong, independent women, who might choose to devote themselves to marriage and motherhood, but they don't have to. I heard a lot of give-yourself-over-to-a-higher-power from Marmee as well – this was the part that surprised me – but I only remember Jesus and God mentioned once during these homilies. And now that I've figured out that Transcendentalists are now Unitarians, this all makes sense. Alcott's father was among the founders of this faith, and she counted Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of her close friends.  

Little Women is read by Lorelei King. I’ve heard her read just once, but I was so impressed that when this showed up in the Solid Gold offerings, I requested this because of her. She’s got a very pleasant reading voice (liquidy and soothing) that works for the omniscient and occasionally pedantic narrator, and she provides an emotional honesty to the little bit of drama in this story that elevates it from a somewhat 19th century bathos to the real feelings of real people. Her narrative choice was to give each sister a distinctly different voice – which made whispery Beth and childish Amy just a little bit difficult to tolerate. But I loved her voices for Meg (steady and low) and Jo (louder and boyishly eager), and Marmee’s calm and loving delivery meant that her little lectures were mostly tolerable.  She only goes drastically wrong in her interpretation of the family’s housekeeper Hannah who seemed to veer back and forth from Southern U.S. to Irish (if Hannah’s origins were described in the book, I missed this information).

When I think about going back to those books that I remember from my childhood, I mostly want to listen to them. Thus far, it’s been a less than successful exercise: I listened to a dreadfully narrated version of A Little Princess a few years ago (my library has two versions of Little Women on CD and when I saw that the narrator of Princess was narrating one of them, it was an easy decision to go with Kate Reading for Part Two), and the Five Little Peppers was just a bad book.  What else might I regret experiencing again? Nancy Drew, at least one Little House book, something from Oz, and Pippi Longstocking hover about on the long (growing every day) I-want-to-listen-to-this list.

This copy of Little Women was generously provided by AudioGO through the Solid Gold Reviewer program at the Audiobook Jukebox.  They sent me another one too, but I gotta finish up the March sisters first!  I thank them.

[The undated photograph of Louisa May Alcott is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

This post written and laboriously uploaded to the world using Amtrak's extremely off-and-on wifi while traveling on the Coast Starlight from Portland to Los Angeles. In the 30 hours in the Parlour Car and a teeny-tiny roomette, I have felt quite special.  I'm finishing up in L.A.'s Union Station, waiting for the train to Anaheim, which shockingly does not have wifi (Union Station doesn't have wifi ... I don't know about Anaheim). I'm borrowing Starbucks'.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Narrated by Lorelei King
AudioGO, 1995.  8:07

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Team player

I've never thought much about which mythical creature I'd prefer in a food fight, but evidently authors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier have. Then they polled all their friends about which side they fell on and then asked them to write a story featuring their favorite. It all came together in a pretty terrific short-story collection called Zombies vs. Unicorns, which features a dozen entries in the contest by (I'm just listing and linking them all here) Libba Bray, Meg Cabot, Cassandra Clare, Kathleen Duey, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Maureen Johnson, Margo Lanagan, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Diana Peterfreund, Carrie Ryan and Scott Westerfeld. While the majority of stories creeped me out, most were entertaining ... and in the complete seriousness with which they approached the ridiculous subject, thought-provoking.

Larbalestier finds zombies intriguing and funny, providing us with an image of our own deaths. Black says that unicorns (despite that virgin thing) pursue justice, occasionally to the death, and are healers. The dozen authors are from all over the board -- some spouting the Team line, others heading off in unanticipated directions. I liked all but one or two, but a few favorites were Ryan's "Bougainvillea," which chillingly prequels her series, The Forest of Hands and Teeth (which I really didn't like); Lanagan's "A Thousand Flowers," a deeply disturbing (like all of her work) story about human/unicorn intercourse and its wide-ranging consequences; Maureen Johnson's "The Children of the Revolution," a sly commentary on our celebrity culture; Westerfeld's "Inoculata," which sees a future beyond the zombie apocalypse; and Bray's "Prom Night," the collection's final story and the one that ends without ending: Only teens are left from the apocalypse and they are trying to maintain a degree of normalcy inside the fence ... but what's that light in the distance? According to that list, I might be on Team Zombie, but really I'm on neither -- except that maybe Zombies make more interesting stories? Or stories that disturb me so much that I can't forget them?

Black and Larbalestier introduce each story with a brief, humorous commentary arguing the merits of their Team and how the story supports (or rejects) their preference; in the audiobook the subject of the story is indicated by either a hunting-horn blast, neigh and clopping hoofs, or a groan and the exaggerated word "brains."  Funny ... the first few times. Still, I suppose you can't start something and then abandon it halfway through. After the first few stories, I pretty much ignored what they were saying -- the stories themselves are much more interesting than the intros.

The audiobook has a slew of narrators. Phil Gigante (last heard here) reads the introduction in a deep, important movie-preview kind of voice, then we never hear him again. Black (her last audiobook heard by me is here) and Larbalestier (and hers is here) read their introductions -- but they speak (or were recorded) fairly softly and they tend to drop their volume at the end of their sentences (I do this too), which makes them hard to understand (another reason why I just began ignoring their brief intros). I did like hearing Larbalestier's Aussie accent and her occasional non-Americanisms.

The stories are narrated by Ellen Grafton (last heard here), Nick Podehl (here), Kate Rudd (never heard!) and Julia Whelan (here). And, well, despite the interesting stories, I'm not sure I really liked the narrations.  I couldn't distinguish between Rudd and Whelan, although their work was the strongest.  Podehl shined in one of the three stories he narrated, Alaya Dawn Johnson's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," where he performed up to his usual excellent teen-boy standard. He does fine with Duey's "The Third Virgin," although that one was lengthy and a bit dull. But he was so uncomfortable in his section of Lanagan's story where he tried a wobbly Irish accent that I can't deny I was glad when something bad happened to his character and the story moved on. Grafton's girlish voice bugged me in her narrations -- it was high and piercing and didn't express much emotional range (beyond childishness). Particularly when it's easy to compare her work to Rudd and Whelan, she comes up far short.

A few subject heading searches: Zombies - Fiction (180 at my library), Zombies - Juvenile Fiction (71 titles -- mostly teen stuff). Unicorns - Fiction (29), Unicorns - Juvenile Fiction (55).  I guess Team Zombie wins by sheer numbers, if nothing else. My mythical team? Djinn (Go, Team Bartimaeus!)  Jinn - Fiction (11), Jinn - Juvenile Fiction (40).

[Screenshot from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is from and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's tapestry at The Cloisters, The Unicorn in Captivity, is from the Google Art Project and also was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Zombies vs. Unicorns, compiled and edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
Narrated by Ellen Grafton, Nick Podehl, Kate Rudd, Julia Whelan, with the editors and Phil Gigante
Brilliance Audio, 2010.  11:57

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rode the six hundred

Blogger tells me that this is post number 600; divided by five and half years isn't so impressive but it's a nice round number.  I'm using it to report that my narrator man, Dion Graham, was just named Booklist's 2012 Voice of Choice!  Yay!  I've been hoping to get a chance to listen to his reading of Miles Davis' autobiography, but the stars haven't aligned quite yet.

I also wanted to give a shoutout to AudioSynced, a roundup of audiobook-related activity for May.  And June finds us in the midst of a whole month of audiobooks.  Happy listening!