Saturday, July 7, 2012

Your humble historian

I'm glad I took a couple of weeks between Little Women Parts One and Two, since -- by the end of the latter I'd really had my fill of Victorian moralizing even if it came with a dollop of feminism.  After Louisa May Alcott agreed to her publisher's request for more of the March sisters, Good Wives picks up the story three years later with the wedding of eldest sister Meg to the noble -- if poor - John Brooke.  They were engaged for a long time.

Alcott continues with the format she used in the first part -- time moves forward and each chapter features the adventures/ activities of one of the sisters, further illuminating her character.  Meg and John have twins (a chapter devoted to how this affected their marital bliss was perhaps the low point of the novel for me), Jo hies off to New York to try and start her writing career where she meets Professor Bhaer, Beth ... well, you know what happens to Beth, and Amy gets the opportunity to travel to Europe with her aunt and uncle, study painting, and ... well you know what happens to Amy as well.

What surprised me the most was the whole Jo-Professor Bhaer thing, which threw me a little off-kilter. Sensible Jo -- who rejects Laurie's proposal (see below) because she utterly knows how unsuited they are to marriage (to each other) -- gets quite loopy for the Professor, pretty early on.  And then, she stops writing (the sensational stuff for the hilariously named Weekly Volcano) when she senses that Bhaer doesn't approve!  And way at the end of the book, she offhandedly says that she thinks she might occasionally write something (when she can spare the time from all those boys). Holy cow! I had Professor Bhaer pegged as a proto-feminist, but he's just like all those other guys insisting the world be the way they think it should be (Republican Party anyone?). Well, not completely ... he's willing to take his wife's money and to let the little woman work ... for him.

This Little Women is read by the suitably named (a nom de voix) Kate Reading (pronounced red-ing). The audiobook included both parts, and so I only listened to part of it. Reading reads the prolix 19th century prose with confidence, and creates distinct characters for the four sisters as well as many others in the novel, including the German-accented Professor Bhaer. Each sister had a voice that nicely captured the essence of their character (diffident Meg, stalwart Jo, sickly Beth, and spoilt Amy).

While I didn't make a side-by-side comparison between Reading and Lorelei King, their narrations were not dramatically different. Since both Beth and Amy were older, Reading chose more mature deliveries for these two Marches and this was much appreciated. Her Marmee also didn't sound quite as smug as King's. While I was listening to Part One, I didn't think of King's interpretation as particularly self-righteous when she makes her many pronouncements about her "little women," but Reading's is definitely a little more relaxed.

I've listened to Reading read before (although once I didn't bother to give her name -- thank you Audiobook Jukebox!), and have also listened to and enjoyed King, but I think I need to give Reading the edge here. Not by much, though. They are both great narrators.

My foray into Little Women makes me want to read Geraldine Brooks' March (available on audio), and watch the recent documentary about Alcott. More than I want to delve into other books from my childhood ... hmm.

[Laurie's marriage proposal has just been rejected by Jo in this 1947 illustration from Louis Jambor (Illustrated Junior Library edition). It was retrieved from a tumblr site, The Northern Light.]

Good Wives (Little Women, Part 2) by Louisa May Alcott
Narrated by Kate Reading
Listening Library, 2002. 9:51

Keep your gloves on!

I riffed a while ago on the horrors of traveling without a book to read, which came back to me while I was listening to Holly Black’s Red Glove. I’d been sitting on my library copy of this, Book 2 in The Curse Workers, hoping that my library would soon be buying Book 3, so I could listen to them back-to-back. 

 Last week, I found myself on what felt like an endless bus ride from Santa Barbara to San Jose, where the sound seemed to travel so efficiently that I could completely hear the conversations /music of several other passengers which did whatever it does to my brain making me incapable of concentrating on what I was reading.  Turning to audio, I quickly finished up what was on my mp3 player, leaving me with nothing to listen to.  When I remembered my laptop. Upon which was Red Glove. Which I could listen to this very minute. (Once I found the headset jack, because unlike the guy sharing his music with everyone on the bus, I pretty much knew no one else would want to listen to the story of Cassel Sharpe. I know how I hate to start a story in the middle.) And so I did.

(The other thing listening to Cassel enabled me to do was rip out what felt like all the knitting I had done on the train ride down to California. He helped immensely with that disheartening task.)

So, Red Glove.  I listened to White Cat about a year ago and loved it, so I’ll try not to spoil it (much) for you. In a nutshell, Cassel lives in the present day, but in a world where some people are born with the ability to affect others (from minimally to death or transformation) with a touch of skin on skin.  These people are called curse workers and curse work is illegal (it’s been co-opted by the mob); everyone protects themselves by wearing gloves. Cassel comes from a family of curse workers, some of whom work for a Jersey mobster named Zakarov.

Cassel has spent the summer after the events of White Cat hanging out in Atlantic City, helping his mother with her emotion-worker cons and trying to forget his friend, Lila Zacharov, who has been worked by his mother to love Cassel. But when he returns to prep school he discovers that Lila has followed him there. He tries to resist her attempts to kindle a love affair.

Cassel soon receives some shocking news – his oldest brother Philip has been murdered by an unidentified woman wearing red gloves. He learns this from some FBI agents, who tell him that Philip had been working for them in exchange for immunity, and now they want Cassel to take Philip’s place, by first finding out who killed him. The trouble is, Cassel has an even bigger secret that he’s very interested in keeping from any law enforcement.

While I enjoyed this book a lot, it suffered from middle-book syndrome, by which I mean that now that we are invested in the story and the characters, Black is setting us up for the big conclusion.  The identity of Philip's murderer (which I have completely forgotten just a week later) isn't very compelling; and while Cassel spends a lot of time setting up his plan to con the FBI, he also does a lot of agonizing over how everyone he knows seems to want something from him.  Because I enjoy the long con and the delicious feeling of not quite knowing what Cassel is up to, I didn't feel that Red Glove was a waste of time, but rather worthy preparation for Book 3, Black Heart.

I'm going to read Black Heart, though (I don't want to wait for the audio to show up in the catalog). Which will be OK I think, because I'll hear Jesse Eisenberg while I'm reading. He is an inspired choice for Cassel -- I hear all of his exhaustion, insecurity and longing in Eisenberg's high, reedy voice. When he uses that immature timbre to stare down the threatening FBI agents, he's pretty funny to boot. Eisenberg doesn't voice the novel, but he doesn't need to. His command of Cassel's character is enough to keep this audiobook interesting.

While listening to this, I confess that my mind occasionally wandered (hey! that bus ride was seriously distracting!) ... to Noah Baumbach to The Empire Strikes Back to The Social Network to Eisenberg's family, even to unicorns! After I arrived in San Jose, I met a young friend finishing up her first year of post-college school teaching and we drove the rest of the way to Portland (with a pause in the redwoods). We spent time pondering the value of a liberal arts education, and I pretty much think that it's that kind of education that allows you to flit from one cultural tidbit to another and have them make sense. We may be unemployable, baby, but we're thinkers!

[The PSA above comes from the series' website.]

Red Glove (The Curse Workers, Book 2) by Holly Black
Narrated by Jesse Eisenberg
Listening Library, 2011.  7:03