Saturday, August 25, 2012

Deaths in the penumbra

The not-quite up-to-date archive of 42 years of Masterpiece Theatre tells me that I first met Lord Peter Wimsey in 1973 when I was a teenager. After having my socks charmed off by Ian Carmichael's Wimsey and his loyal man Bunter, I quickly read all 11 novels by Dorothy L. Sayers. Many years passed and I was briefly (although not as thoroughly) engaged by Edward Petherbridge's Wimsey (1987). (Even after listening to this novel, Petherbridge will forever be Newman Noggs to me, via Nicholas Nickleby.) I'm not sure I ever re-read the books, but in 2003 I picked up the first of Jill Paton Walsh's Wimsey novels: the first was from early chapters and an outline from Sayers, the second was inspired by some notes, and the third, The Attenbury Emeralds, is all Paton Walsh. She should stop, and I should go find the originals.

The Attenbury Emeralds' UK version subtitles itself Lord Peter Wimsey's First Case, and novel begins as Wimsey and Bunter tell Peter's wife Harriet how Peter recovered a purloined "kingstone" emerald (which may or may not have been previously purloined from an Indian maharaja) for the Attenbury family in 1921 when Peter was still recovering from the shell shock he suffered as a result of serving in World War I. It's 1951, Peter is 60 and he and Harriet are settling into a comfortable middle age.  The cash-strapped current Earl of Attenbury comes knocking at Peter's door for help. The bank that is holding the emerald has evidence that the jewel in its possession is not the Attenbury emerald, but a matching stone that belongs to someone else, and it will not release the stone to the Earl until he can come up with evidence to the contrary. Peter and Harriet agree to investigate and unearth an elaborate plot of revenge that harkens back to the original case.

This was just dull, entirely missing the spark that is a Wimsey mystery. He and Harriet are kind of awkwardly loving, family and friends appear and disappear demonstrating one or two character traits and nothing else, even the puzzle is not particularly puzzling. (Yes, revenge is a dish that's best eaten cold, but 30 years??)  The long preamble of the 1921 mystery felt endless (two of eight discs!), and it was not related because they'd had the visit from the current Earl -- that took place afterwards. The Wimsey's enlightened 1950s mindset (too bad about those inheritance duties, but it's for the good of England and oh yes! let's have Bunter dine with us) seemed a little too modern. The subplot involving a change in the Wimseys circumstances was extraneous and somewhat craven, although I wonder if that was the author pronouncing herself done with the stories.  And then there's that fairly unappealing cover (British cover much better).

Alas, I must add that Petherbridge was a bit of a disappointment as a narrator. He has a unique way of speaking where he slurs words together, makes unexpected pauses, and decreases volume at the end of sentences and I often had difficulty understanding him. This can be effective when he is acting, but is a little more problematic when reading a book. He does very little voicing, and -- pretty much uniquely in a British narrator in my experience -- reads only with the slightest class and cultural differences.  When Peter and Bunter are recounting the story of the first disappearance of the Attenbury emerald, I often could not tell who was speaking.  On the other hand, when Peter and Harriet are exchanging deep feelings, whether through dialogue or just in the text, Petherbridge produced an emotional huskiness that was rather moving.

So, Library2Go has Ian Carmichael reading Sayers' second Wimsey book, Clouds of Witness.  Good grief, I could check it out right now ... except that I can't. I'm off on vacation for two weeks (exploring and sailing off the coast of Maine) and I've already got my listening lined up.  See you in September.  

[The photograph of the Geschliffener Smaragd (polished emerald) was taken by LesFacettes and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Attenbury Emeralds: Lord Peter Wimsey's First Case by Jill Paton Walsh
Narrated by Edward Petherbridge
AudioGO, 2010. 9:37

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Coming to get you

More confessions from Lee about her musical ignorance (see Miles).  Popular music is my worst category -- well, maybe second worst, after American Presidents -- on Jeopardy.  I'm not a sophisticated listener in any way whatsoever, preferring those artists who produce something that I can sing along with.  When people mention various groups or music genres, I nod, but mostly have absolutely no idea to whom or what they are referring.  I have not purchased music in any form for years (this last can be directly related to when I began listening to audiobooks).  So, the ins and outs of the music business outlined in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad were pretty obscure; fortunately, this amazing book is about people, people who are struggling with the realization that they are getting old (I can really relate to this!) while the world stays young around them. It was terrific.

According to the internet and the people whose thoughts about Goon Squad are posted there, this book is about a music producer named Bennie Salazar and his long decline from top banana at his own record company (the memorably named Sow's Ear) to someone who served excrement sandwiches to the moguls at the mega-media corporation who bought him out and began producing ... well, shit.  But this book isn't about Bennie any more or less than it's about the other characters whose stories are told here.  Egan begins Goon Squad by introducing us to Bennie's ace assistant (and kleptomaniac), Sasha, but each chapter after that riffs off of a character met previously (so Chapter 2 is Bennie's story, Chapter 3 flashes back to Bennie as a teenager and introduces the producer who mentored his career, etc.). I believe that Egan wrote the chapters as individual short stories and then pulled them together into what she refers to as a "concept album."

Now, what I know about concept albums comes from Wikipedia, but goodness, I loved her characters.  Sasha, whose youthful wildness belies what the Goon Squad turns her into; Dolly, a publicist whose meteoric crash forces her into some unhealthy business relationships; Scotty, a one-album wonder who attempts -- with Bennie's help -- to make a comeback; Bennie's brother-in-law the rock-and-roll journalist and possible rapist; the totally creepy Lou who gets his desserts (justly or not); and brilliantly, the next generation: Sasha's daughter and Dolly's daughter, and the daughter of another character take us into an uncertain future. Once you grasp Egan's concept (that this is not a straight-through story), you just want to keep going because the characters lives are so astonishingly vivid.

I confess that I did read up on this book before listening, and it helped immensely. I knew going in that it was going to head off in unexpected directions (including the famous PowerPoint chapter), so I was able to relax and just listen. I did have one or two moments when I needed to remember who someone was, but Egan always took a natural moment to tell me.

Goon Squad doesn't seem like a natural candidate for audio, which likes forward momentum and conventional plotting, but I thought it was an excellent audiobook. The narrator, Roxana Ortega, was in complete command of her material. Each chapter in the book has a distinct feel, and Ortega captured this in her reading. One is written as if it were a snide Rolling Stone-ish article about a starlet, another in an extremely depressed second person (I wasn't sorry when that one ended). The PowerPoint piece is handled brilliantly -- a sound effect of a slide carousel moving from slide to slide tells you when our narrator has shown a new slide. Ortega creates individual characters with subtlety -- often just a deeper voice for a male character, but they are consistent and distinctive without being exaggerated.

I'm sure I tossed this over to the audiobook want-to-read-it list when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 (the last one to win since no winner was selected this year). It's also my second Pulitzer-winning-collection-of-interlinked-short-stories-previously-published-in-The-New-Yorker in a year. And let me digress once more by linking to a New Yorker blog post where a playlist is suggested for each chapter of Goon Squad (of course, I don't know most of these songs, but I like the idea).  [And back to why I listened:]  I thought it would be "literary" (i.e., challenging to read), and I like to listen to these. I don't think that would have been necessary here, but I'm glad I listened anyway.

[Egan's central metaphor is that aging (or perhaps, more accurately, just continuing to live on) is the goon squad, the hired thugs who come to beat you up. The internet tells me that goon initially meant simpleton, personified in the 20th century (although the meaning is way older) by a Popeye character named Alice the Goon, who is pictured. This image came from the Popeye Wiki.]

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Narrated by Roxana Ortega
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 2011.  10:05

Saturday, August 11, 2012


Like pretty much anyone who went to high school in the United States, I encountered Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" some time in my school career. I played a member of the crowd in a production of the one-act play, where I can still hear the powerful scream of the actress in the lead role. I'm actually not sure if I ever studied the short story, but when I came to the audio version in The Lottery and Seven Other Stories, I already knew the ending.  It still gave me chills. So worth re-reading every decade or so.

"The Lottery" was published in the New Yorker on June 26, 1948 and the magazine still claims it was the most controversial work it ever published. The residents of a small town are gathering in the square to undergo a ritual that has been completed many times before.  Some of the residents chatter a bit about why they are still doing this thing, but they are quickly brought to order by the coal dealer, Mr. Summers.  He stirs pieces of paper collected in a battered old box and the adult men of the town each select a paper. When all the men have picked one, they open them.  A shockingly short time later, the lottery is over.  Just 3,773 words.

The other stories in this collection mostly have that same quiet ordinariness that abruptly turns nasty. Jackson seems to have mastered the craft of the short story in that each story is complete, but you are thinking about them long after finishing them. I particularly liked "Flower Garden" (1949), where a young widow moves with her son to a small town from New York City and is befriended by another mother much cowed by her husband and mother-in-law. When the widow hires a black man to tend her sumptuous garden, the town turns against her. Jackson's luxurious descriptions of the fecund garden and of the sweaty, handsome gardener make it quite clear how the widow has crossed the line. "Pillar of Salt" (1948) was excellent as well: A married couple get the chance to spend some vacation time together in New York, but eventually the wife grows paralyzed by fear as she imagines the city coming apart all around her.

My favorite, though, was "Like Mother Used to Make" (1949). Good friends David and Marcia live across the hall from one another. David loves his apartment -- its bright walls, its matching decor, the tasteful flatware and dishes he carefully saves up for. Marcia has given David a key to her apartment because she is so flighty, and David is repelled by the disorganized mess he discovers there when he lets himself in to leave her a note reminding her he is cooking dinner for her. Marcia is late, but they are having a lovely time when she hears her doorbell buzz. She lets in the caller, who works with her, and invites him to join her in David's apartment. It soon becomes clear that the caller believes he is in Marcia's apartment and Marcia does nothing to dissuade him.  It's delightfully menacing, and like all Jackson's work you finish it wondering exactly what will happen next.

This collection, originally produced on cassette by an outfit called Audio Partners Publishing Corporation in 1998, is narrated by Carol Jordan Stewart. I've heard her read just once before and liked it. Here she reads the stories capably and professionally. She doesn't do a lot of voicing, but she definitely has a feel for how to differentiate between men and women in dialogue. She's chosen to read Jackson's stories with the sense they have of not quite ending, so the way she reads the final sentence is not conclusive (for want of a better term).

And this bothered me for the sole reason that the next story started up immediately. Immediately ... hardly time to take a breath.  There was no pause between them. I needed that moment; I needed to process the fact that the story was over and I needed to know that it was over so that I could press pause in order to process.  This was a download, so pressing pause after the next story begins is problematic, since you aren't re-starting at a new track, you're trying to find your place through the delicate art of "rewinding," an art that I can't seem to effect without clumsiness.

There were also instructions in two places to turn the cassette over that hadn't been edited out in the digitization process. Mostly amusing, yet it did -- like the manual rewinding -- sort of disrupt the flow.

NoveList calls Shirley Jackson a writer of horror, and I agree. It's too bad horror has devolved into slashers, blood and absurdly stupid teenagers. Real horror chills, it doesn't scare; real horror reverberates in your brain, it doesn't make you laugh nervously. Real horror can make you think it can happen to you. I might try one of Jackson's longer works one of these days.

[Here are some Fergus Falls (MN) high school students rehearsing a production of "The Lottery" in 2010. I used to get my picture in the paper like this when I was in plays in high school. It's somehow encouraging to know that the Fergus Falls Journal (from which this photo is taken) still publishes a print paper every day but Saturday and fills it with hometown news.]

The Lottery and Seven Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
Narrated by Carol Jordan Stewart
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 2010

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The life you save may be your own

I mostly hate it when people read a work of fiction (or watch a movie) about a subject about which they know a great deal and then go on at great length about how incorrect everything they read or watched was. It's fiction, I proclaim, cut some slack. If you want facts, head on over to the nonfiction shelves. Yet I found myself doing the same thing while listening to Sara Zarr's latest novel, How to Save a Life. I've read almost all of Zarr's work, but I had a hard time giving this one the fiction slack I insist that others do.

Jill MacSweeney and her mother, Robin, are still reeling from the death of her father in a car accident ten months ago. Jill has cut herself off from her closest friends and feels trapped in loneliness and anger, but now she has something to be really mad about: Her mother has connected online with a pregnant teen -- just one year older than Jill -- and plans to adopt her baby boy. As the novel begins, Mandy has just come to live with Jill and Robin in Denver for the month left before the birth. It will just be an arrangement between Mandy and Robin: No social workers, no lawyers, no secrecy.

And, yet -- of course -- there are nothing but secrets here. Mandy and Jill tell the story in alternating chapters and slowly the onion is peeled and the lies and hurts and other unspoken emotions are exposed.  The characters' growth from pain to healing seemed authentic to me (if a little speedy and overly neat there at the end) and the two voices of the girls were honest and compelling. Everyone in this novel was a real person. Zarr is an expert at characterization, in all of her books the young women (in particular) act and react in age-appropriate ways. They ask the questions that smart teenagers ask. Jill and Mandy are no different.  They aren't very appealing young women though; I cared about them only because I knew they were each in a really shitty place and that I should care (also, see last paragraph).

But what I couldn't get around was the adoption. I used to (20 years ago! yikes!) work at an open adoption agency and while I completely understand that many, many people (both adoptive and birth parents) are operating from fear in this situation and that leads to bad decisions, my brain wasn't able to ignore the fact that the characters on the periphery of this drama (most notably, the obstetrician who needed to re-think who her patient was!) weren't stepping in to say "wait one minute."  OK, totally not fair assessment of a novel for teenagers. It's baggage, I've recognized it and moved on.

(On the other hand, I enjoyed the slight play on words with the name of the bookstore where Jill worked: Margins. Sigh ... a good bookstore gone.)

I am moving on because the narrators were so good.  Ariadne Meyers (heard here in another stellar example of never actually mentioning the narrator) and Cassandra Morris (here) read Jill and Mandy respectively. Morris reads Mandy in her tiny, girlish voice with an underpinning of resolve that lets you know that she's not the under-educated hick that Jill thinks she is. Meyers gives us a goth Jill who seesaws between contempt (both self and external) and unbearable fear as she destroys relationships with everyone around her. Meyers is particularly good at reproducing Morris' unique speech when Jill is describing conversations. Both women can easily manage dialogue and diverse characterizations.

One complaint: This novel contains extensive internal monologues by each character and it was occasionally tricky figuring out what was being said aloud. Context usually helps here, but always after the fact, which always causes a slight ears-to-brain delay with what is being read next.

Unlike the last (and only) Sara Zarr book I listened to, I liked the audio here better than the book itself. The narrators really give the novel a complexity that allows a listener (well, me) to look beyond its flaws. Their vivid characterizations truly turned those young women into lively and honest people.

I've been feeling some youth fiction fatigue lately and wondering what has caused it.  It recently took me nine (!) days to finish a 220-page novel for children!!! It's not just that I read at a glacial pace of 24 pages a day (that's not even a bus ride), it's that I'm not liking it very much. Granted, some unusual things are currently clogging up my concentration, but I clearly need to take a break. Alas, it's simply not possible until the end of the year. Must re-apply nose to grindstone, but I may be over-representing adult stuff in the ears as I seek some literary relief from the young set. Maybe you, oh gentle reader, won't mind that either.

[I cribbed my post title from Zarr's epigraph, who borrowed it from a short story by Flannery O'Connor.  The photograph of O'Connor with fellow Writers' Workshop participants Arthur Koestler (one day I must learn how to crop pictures) and (boyfriend/instructor?) Robie Macauley was taken at the University of Iowa in 1947 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Narrated by Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris
Listening Library, 2012.  9:54


The filmmaker Ken Burns serves a similar purpose as audiobook narrators for me. I let Ken (and others) work hard while I sit back and absorb. The little I know about the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis I got from Ken Burns' documentary Jazz. After listening to fave narrator Dion Graham impersonate Davis while reading  Miles: The Autobiography, I know much more about Davis, but I can't say I enjoyed it. This book was simply not my cup of tea. (I think simply with my use of that phrase, it's fairly evident that Miles and I were not a good match.)

In the spirit of absorption of others' hard work, here's some of what I learned about Miles Davis:
  • He grew up a middle-class kid from East St. Louis whose dentist father sent him to New York to attend The Julliard School, but he soon dropped out as jazz gigs came his way at a shockingly early age.
  • He had a strong sense of a positive black identity that he never felt he needed to hide in order for his music to reach any interested audience. He rebutted a Julliard instructor's blanket statement of why black people played the blues by pointing out that he had been raised and educated in middle-class comfort.
  • He insisted that black women be featured on his album covers (was he the first?). He also physically (and probably emotionally) battered several women with whom he was involved.
  • He rid himself of his heroin addiction, but at the end of his life he needed cocaine and alcohol to ease physical ailments.
  • He never missed an opportunity to use the F word.
  • He spent very little time in retrospection, finding fault with others but rarely himself. He reserved particular digs for grinning Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis (who disrespected his elders) and ex-wife Cicely Tyson.
  • He lived in what sounded like a fabulous house on W. 77th Street (scroll down to Davis) in Manhattan through the mid-1980s. Miles and I might have rubbed shoulders in Zabar's (not that I would have known who he was)!
To my ears, large portions of this memoir were devoted to lists of jazz musicians, just a few of which were names familiar to me. As Davis went on tour, or cut an album, he would name all the musicians who played with him and what music they played. I'm sure this is of great interest to fans -- who probably could hear the music while they are reading or listening to this -- but for me, it was just mind-numbing. Days (and there were a lot of listening days devoted to this) would go by and I'd think -- I am still listening to Miles Davis go on about his life.  I get that he was a musical innovator, a proud black man who never accommodated his identity or art to what others thought, but he was also tremendously self-absorbed and never seemed to experience a moment of self-doubt. Setting aside my ignorance and lack of enthusiasm about jazz, I still think I wouldn't have wanted to know this man.

Dion Graham simply channels Miles in his narration. He adopts the soft, raspy voice that Davis was known for (and he explained what happened in the autobiography, but I need Wikipedia to remind me that he didn't rest his voice properly following surgery for polyps), and proceeds to read for 17 hours as if he were dictating his story for Quincy Troupe, the poet who is credited right alongside Davis: "Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe."  Which, I suspect, Miles was -- dictating, that is. Graham's narration is immediate, it's authentic, and it drove me nuts. I had to turn the volume up if I wanted to hear outside or in the car and it was occasionally quite painful to the ears. But being Graham, he kept me amused with his many variations of "fuck" and I can't deny that he did precisely what he needed to do to read this book. It all comes down to personal preference, and this man, this book, and this audiobook will never be mine. When Graham as Troupe wraps up the book with his epilogue, I felt like I had emerged from a long ordeal.

I might be a better person having listened, be a person who can now speak (more) knowledgeably about Miles Davis. But, here's the real drawback of this audiobook (and I realize that it's just not a fair criticism because of rights and permissions), there is no music. No cues of Miles' trumpet when he discusses a particular piece, nothing to connect the words with the art. As I said earlier, Miles Davis fans can likely hear the music in their heads when they are reading/listening to this autobiography, so I guess I think this book is for fans and scholars. I'm sure they would have enjoyed it far more than I. As they say in Library Journal, for libraries (and listeners) with significant jazz collections (which would be my library which holds more than 2,000 jazz CDs). I'll make a suggestion for purchase.

This copy of Miles: The Autobiography was provided to me by AudioGO via the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewing program.  Thanks to both for their generosity and hard work!

[Davis' first wife, the dancer Frances Taylor (not mentioned at all in the Wikipedia article!), was the first (?) black woman to be featured on an album cover  (where she wasn't a performer). This album is from 1961; the image was retrieved from the official Miles Davis website.]

Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe
Narrated by Dion Graham
AudioGO, 2012. 16:56