Thursday, November 28, 2013

When salt saved art

I've expressed before my enjoyment of a good art history (fact or fiction) story. I can't remember where I first heard about the upcoming George Clooney movie, but it intrigued me enough to seek it out in book form first. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History tells part of the story of the work of the men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of the Allied armies in Europe during World War II. Author Robert M. Edsel became interested in the work of the MFAA while working in Florence, but his research soon turned from an avocation to a profession. He discovered so much about the mostly unknown work of these men and women that he eventually had to break it up into two books. The Monuments Men (written with Bret Witter) is the first one, covering Northern Europe, while the second -- published just this year -- covers MFAA activities and adventures in Italy.

The work of the MFAA started in the United States when a bunch of art historians and museum directors got together to plan what to do with their treasures in the event of an attack by Germany on the Eastern Seaboard. One of the participants -- a lowly preservationist from Iowa amongst all those East Coast intellectuals -- George Stout, managed to get himself assigned to the MFAA once he arrived in Europe and began the laborious process of setting up teams who would travel alongside each part of the vast Allied armies as they made their way from the beaches of Normandy to Berlin. These "monuments men" would protect the ancient cathedrals and castles in the liberated towns and cities, taking the first steps to restoring them to their pre-war glory.

Once they arrived in France, though, Stout and the MFAA discovered that they had a bigger task -- locating the various stashes of looted artwork that the Nazis had picked up from museums, churches and private (mostly Jewish) citizens as they marched West. Five years later, as the Germans retreated ahead of the Allies, these works went with them and were then "secured" in caves, salt mines and even the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle.

Among the priceless works: Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, Vermeer's The Astronomer, and van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. The looting was vast (Track 5 of Disc 11 provides the astonishing numbers), and this itemizing doesn't even count the number of "degenerate" artworks that are lost forever, destroyed by the Nazis. Adolph Hitler was an art lover (he also considered himself an artist) and he intended to build a vast museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria that would hold all these European treasures. But once he realized that the Third Reich was doomed, he instituted -- over the objections of his architect, Albert Speer -- the "Nero" decree: Destroy everything that the Allies might use (or want) as they made their way into Germany.  The Monuments Men were running out of time.

I found this story fascinating -- like the novels I listened to earlier this year that described the amazing feats of courage of the women of the British SOE -- the matter-of-fact, let's-just-get-the-job-done attitude under terrifying conditions of these men (and a few women) is awe-inspiring and just makes for a great story. I'm not sure that audio is the best way for this, though. Edsel features just a few of the monuments men in action and I'm afraid -- even though he very carefully introduced them at the beginning -- that they began to blend together. I could have used a map, too, as I have only the vaguest idea of German geography (once they crossed the Rhine, I got lost). I got my Nazis mixed up as well (Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann). I'd like to get my hands on a copy of the book, but there are a lot of holds.

Part of my problem, I fear, was the narrator, Jeremy Davidson. I didn't think he was very good, but I'll try not to pile on here. Sloppy pronunciation ("unexpectantly" "ah-mmediately"), inconsistent French, German and British accents, a pretty unvarying reading pace. Some odd narrative choices: Why was a conversation between Hitler and Goebbels (?) not read with German-accented English, but other dialogue among Germans was? Letters from some of the monuments men were read by a different narrator (I think it was an uncredited William Dufris), but not all the letters from the text were (I'm going to guess that the Dufris readings were pulled out from the text [boxed], while the letters read by Davidson were not.) In one case, each narrator pronounced the name of a monuments man's wife differently. The Author's Note was delivered by another uncredited reader ... perhaps the author?

On the plus side, the opening and closing music was appropriately military-ish (in a good way).

Edsel's subsequent book: Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis has a different narrator, one I've been hoping to listen to for a while, Edoardo Ballerini. I'll probably give this a listen as well.

Now for the movie. As I was listening, I was trying to figure out what would be the movie, exactly. I mean, the race against the Nero decree was slightly tense, but didn't seem to me all that nerve-wracking; but then I saw that Clooney cast the lovely Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, a dumpy middle-aged Frenchwoman who -- as a curator at the Jeu de Paume -- saved a massive number of artworks.  Ah. Movies from books. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I'm looking forward to it.

[In the photograph, retrieved from the New York Times and credited to American Jewish Historical Society, the soldier on the right is Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger and he is looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait looted from his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany. Ironically, Ettlinger was never able to view the Rembrandt when he was a boy, as a Jew he was barred from the museum housing it.

[The photograph of the Bruges Madonna was taken by George Washingtong, that of The Astronomer is from the Web Gallery of Art. Both were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Narrated by Jeremy Davidson
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO); credited to Macmillan Audio, 2009.  14:19

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mi vida

After taking a break with Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, I delved back into the dystopic future of Matt Alacrán in Nancy Farmer's ten-years'-later sequel to The House of Scorpion, The Lord of Opium. The sequel came ten years later, The Lord of Opium begins the day after the final events of its predecessor. So, don't read any further here if you don't want the end of Scorpion spoiled.

In Matt's world, when a person with a clone dies, the clone becomes the person -- so Matt is now El Patrón, ruler of the country of Opium, part of the Drug Confederacy that stretches along what used to be the border of the United States and Mexico. At the former El Patrón's funeral, he'd left instructions that his mourners should drink a glass of the finest wine around his tomb; none knew that the wine was laced with poison and every mourner died, buried now with El Patrón -- Matt's beloved mentor Tam Lin with them. Tam Lin knew about the wine, but chose to die with the others. Matt is devastated, but soon learns why.

As El Patrón, Matt is determined to wean Opium from its source of profits -- poppies -- and free the eejits, the people with chips implanted in their brains that turns them into mindless slaves. He meets the leader of the Farm Patrol -- soldiers who captured anyone who strayed into Opium, turned them into eejits and then supervised their labors -- Cienfuegos, who becomes a valuable ally in Matt's efforts. Cienfuegos introduces Matt to parts of Opium he knew nothing about -- a biosphere, a space station, the cloning facility. Cienfuegos also alerts Matt to the forces -- good and bad -- waiting at the borders (and unable to get in because Opium is locked down) hopeful of taking over the opium trade or eradicating it altogether. It takes Matt a while to trust Cienfuegos, but soon they are working together to try and save Opium, and perhaps the world.

I found this a bit of a yawn. The bulk of the novel is Matt's exploration of his new domain and his amazement, disgust, determination began to wear. Yes, Matt is seeking his destiny and searching for a family -- which is an excellent story to tell -- but I longed for the tension that made the first book so compelling along a little more action. The final chapters are fairly exciting, but they are a long time coming.

Farmer brings in a raft of new characters: Cien- fuegos; a young child clone of a rival drug lord's lover named Listen (and she does); The Bug, another -- barely human -- clone of El Patrón; Mirasol, an eejit who may have a spark left inside her; and the Mushroom Master, an eccentric scientist brought out from the biosphere. It's these three-dimensional characters that make the leisurely pace of the novel tolerable, and certainly provide the investment in wanting Matt (and the family that he creates) to succeed.

Raúl Esparza returns as narrator and -- in this installment -- his characterizations are outstanding. These interesting people -- along with those noted above, Farmer brings back Matt's close (girl)friend María, the maternal Celia, the boys he met (and saved) at the plankton factory, even El Patrón shows up in Matt's head occasionally -- are all voiced authentically, consistently and without odd exaggerations by Esparza. The Spanish words and names are pronounced as if a Spanish speaker were saying them, and he even gets to provide a few other accents -- a couple of Africans have a few lines of dialogue, the Mushroom Man is British and even though Daft Donald (the only survivor of El Patrón's massacre) can't speak, he types in a Scottish accent.

Sadly, for some reason, Esparza chooses not to sing snatches of a spiritual (one that I've sung in my past): Children, Go Where I Send Thee. Since he sang in the first novel, I was particularly disappointed at this omission. At the same time, there is a brief but evocative (Spanish guitar chords) musical interlude that introduces the book.

The audiobook concludes with an interview between Farmer and Esparza. She's a little starstruck here, introducing him as a Tony-Award-nominated actor, but eventually they have a pleasant conversation. Esparza relates his background in audiobooks (his first was The House of the Scorpion), they chat about their favorite characters and what part he'd like to play in the (possible) movie (Tam Lin). Except for the crappy sound quality, it's engaging.

Esparza mentions an afterword to The Lord of Opium that isn't reproduced in the audiobook. This happens all too frequently and I just want to know why.

I received a copy of The Lord of Opium through the Solid Gold Reviewer program of the Audiobook Jukebox. Thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for this gift.

[The image of Patrón de San Pedro was taken by an unknown photographer and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer
Narrated by Raúl Esparza
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013.  11:31

Saturday, November 9, 2013

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

John Irving spoke at my college graduation, in a speech he later rewrote for Esquire magazine; that is reproduced here. He used The Great Gatsby as a cautionary tale that amused me at the time, but truly I've never forgotten: "He ... threw his life away on a dream and on a woman not worth even the least of his time. He was murdered in his own swimming pool because he was mistaken for someone else." (Hope that wasn't a spoiler for anyone.)  I've read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby a couple of times since then (although I truthfully can't remember when I first read it -- high school, college?) and each time when I reach the point where Jimmy Gatz' plan for self-improvement is revealed (it can be found in Chapter 9 here) I get a little frisson of that young graduate and her fears and plans for her own future.

Was it the new(est) movie that brought me back to the novel again? I don't know, actually, but I'm so glad I went there. This book is truly a masterpiece. Synopsis: Nick Carraway, still casting about for his future a few years after the end of the Great War, takes a rental cottage on Long Island's West Egg from where he commutes to a job in the "bond business" in Manhattan. His closest neighbor is the mysterious and immensely wealthy Jay Gatsby, whose all-night parties and business relationships with famous gangsters (including the fictional character who fixed the 1919 World Series) are legendary.

Nick secures an invitation to a Gatsby party for himself and his second cousin Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is married to a Yale classmate of Nick's Tom, who is a bully and having a public affair with Mildred Wilson, fat and blowsy wife of a gas station owner. Later, Nick learns that before she married, Daisy had a love affair with Gatsby. And once she reconnects with Nick's neighbor, she and Gatsby become lovers again. In less than five hours (under 200 pages), it all goes horribly wrong.

What is so terrific about this book? Is it the amazing economy of Fitzgerald's writing? His word painting -- Gatsby's parties (although I really enjoyed the sweaty impromptu party that takes place early in the novel when Nick meets Tom's mistress and her white-trash circle), the enervated women, that hot summer drive into Manhattan, the all-seeing eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg? His truthful and honest characters, each one vivid and completely human in such small strokes? The way he captured the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties (while in the midst of it)?  I like how the book has this hurtling sense of oncoming doom, but never quite knowing why or where said doom is going to come from.

The late, legendary Frank Muller reads the novel. Muller and I never crossed paths before he stopped recording as a result of a motorcycle accident in 2001 (around the time I began steadily listening), and this is the first time I've heard him read. He's as extraordinary as his many fans claim (including The New Yorker last year), with his craggy world-weary voice giving life to a depressed Nick Carraway, along with the guarded and mercurial Gatsby. The reading ebbs and flows with a naturalness that makes you feel like he's simply sitting across the room and reading to you. He paces the novel so well, taking his time over the Fitzgerald's prolix (but metaphorically spot-on) descriptions and speeding up with the inevitable forward action, which may be the reason for that sense of doom that permeates the narrative.

It turns out that Muller narrates a lot of Stephen King, which nothing and no one can get me to read ... but my library appears to have a number of classics that he has read. I've always meant to get to Moby Dick, maybe Muller is my ticket.

I think I'll watch the new movie (now that I've read the book and can be all literary about what it includes and leaves out). I don't care about the 3D (those glasses give me a headache), so I think I'll go add my name to the hold list (497 and climbing). Get a load of the catalog description: "A would-be writer Nick Carraway leaves the Midwest and comes to New York City in the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks. Chasing his own American Dream, Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby. It is thus that Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves and deceits." Well, yeah ... that's what it's about, but that's not what it's about. Good grief!

[It's not the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock but it is a light, it's green and on a dock. This can be found at Torquay; the photograph was taken by Chris Downer for the Geograph Project (I've been using that image resource a lot lately) and it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Narrated by Frank Muller
Recorded Books, 1997.  4:39

Dolly, meet Matt. Matt, Dolly. You've got a lot in common

Sometimes, it's best not to look back. I re-read my 2010 post about the last Nancy Farmer book I listened to, and noticed that I turned up my superior nose at a proposed sequel to The House of the Scorpion, her 2002 trifecta winner (National Book Award, Newbery Honor, Printz Honor). Three years later, I asked the good folks at the Audiobook Jukebox to send me a copy of said sequel as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program. (So much for consistency.) The real draw for the sequel, though, was its narrator (more below). Since I last read The House of the Scorpion over ten years ago (I hadn't listed it in my ten-years-plus reading record), I thought I should experience the story again -- this time on audio -- before starting on its sequel.

The House of the Scorpion begins at the conception of Matteo Alacrán, created in a laboratory and gestated in a cow. Matt is the clone of El Patrón, the powerful leader of Opium, a country carved out along the border of the U.S. and Mexico (now called Aztlán) that grows poppies and exports opium. El Patrón uses zombie-fied eejits to mindlessly work his poppy fields and serve him on his vast estate.  El Patrón's DNA has produced a number of clones, who are used to replace his failing organs, and he is now 146 years old. Unlike the other clones, however, Matt's brain is not destroyed at infancy, and he is raised in relative comfort by El Patrón's cook, Celia.

When Matt is about five years old, he is discovered by members of El Patrón's family and for a few months, he is kept prisoner in a room and treated as an eejit (i.e., nothing more than an animal); but when El Patrón learns of his presence, he is released and raised and educated as if he were a "real" boy. Despite this, Matt is not accepted by the others in El Patrón's household; his only friends are his beloved Celia, rebellious María Mendoza -- daughter of El Patrón's close ally, a U.S. Senator -- and Tam Lin, one of El Patrón's terrifying bodyguards. It is Tam Lin who helps to prepare Matt for the future, if he's able to escape El Patrón's ultimate plans for him -- which Matt seems unable to comprehend.

As El Patrón's mind and body fails, Celia and Tam Lin conspire to save Matt, but his escape may be more dangerous than staying in Opium.

After ten years, the story has most definitely stood the test of time. I remembered the bare outlines of the story, but not its details (particularly not the delightfully flawed Tam Lin, who seems a worthy predecessor to Paolo Bacigalupi's marvelous half-man, Tool), so a revisit was not a trial in any way.  It's a riveting story with Matt's fate in the balance up until the very end (and that fate is also, finally, in his own hands); and it plumbs some important subjects: the rights and responsibilities of individuals, what lengths should science go, how are governments complicit in drug trafficking, can a terrorist be a good man.  Not least it asks, what is a clone?

As I said above, I was drawn to the sequel, called The Lord of Opium, by its narrator, Raúl Esparza, who also narrates this book. Esparza is a household name to those of us who enjoy live theatre, establishing his career in a number of singing roles. I was thrilled when he began singing a lullaby on this recording ('cause you know I like the singing!). It will be no trial to continue on with the sequel.

He's a pretty good audiobook narrator as well, although he does tend to get a little emphatic in moments of suspense and drama. All the Spanish names and places are pronounced with authenticity. He reads dialogue very well -- there were many lovely character portrayals: Matt -- first a traumatized child and eventually a confident and heroic young man, tender Celia, passionate María, and unflappable Tam Lin who speaks with a pleasant Scots burr. El Patrón's manipulative evil is evident in Esparza's deep, gravelly delivery and scary heh-heh laugh.

Esparza makes some interesting accent decisions, one that a person not of Latino descent might be unable to get away with: he reads most of the novel's nasty adults with variations on Spanish-inflected English (Celia also speaks with this accent, but of course, she is a wholly sympathetic adult), while the young characters (even the evil ones) are portrayed with ethnically neutral American voices. He is skilled at creating a character with a single vocal characteristic while making that character sound like a human being: a young boy Matt meets after he leaves Opium, Fidelito, has a high, breaking voice and the very unpleasant Felicia, El Patrón's daughter-in-law, speaks with the listlessness of a regular laudanum user.

I understand some readers have found a flaw in Farmer's science, as an important plot point requires Matt to share not only El Patrón's DNA, but his fingerprints.  This identical trait does not happen, but I was not perturbed by it. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

[The photograph of the opium poppies was taken by SuperFantastic and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. I learned in this book that the opium is harvested by cutting striations in the bulb and letting the sap ooze out overnight. The hardened sap is scraped off and refined into heroin. But, to refute my statement in the previous paragraph, maybe I shouldn't believe this since Farmer was wrong about the fingerprints.

[Good grief! Dolly the cloned sheep has been stuffed and is on display at the National Museum of Scotland. This photograph, part of the Geograph Project, was taken by Mike Pennington and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Narrated by Raúl Esparza
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2008.  10:43

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hero(ine) of my own life

Like The Weird Sisters, finished earlier this summer, Eileen Favorite's The Heroines sounded like the kind of great-literature-inspired story that appeals to my dormant English major. The audiobook has been in my possession for quite some time -- thank you for 150 renewals -- and, timing being everything, I needed a short book while I waited for another book to come in that I "have" to listen to. And now, I've got one less audiobook waiting patiently on the shelf. That always makes for a good day.

The Heroines is the story of 13-year-old Penny Entwhistle, at adolescent loose ends during the summer of 1974, the weeks before Richard Nixon resigned from office. Her single mother (Penny's father is not in the picture ... maybe) runs the Homestead, a B&B near Lake Michigan, that attracts a very unusual clientele: Fictional heroines (destined for a bad end) taking a break from their novels for a few days.  Among their guests: Emma Bovary, Blanche duBois, Catherine Earnshaw, Franny Glass, Scarlett O'Hara, and Hester Prynne. (If you don't know who these ladies are, you can't call yourself a professional English major ... ;-)!)

Penny's mother, Anne-Marie, used to try to keep her daughter away from these guests, but now that she's a teenager -- and a well-read one at that -- she pretty much knows what's going on. And it bugs her a little bit, well more that a little bit actually ... Penny often feels that her mom is more interested in helping the heroines than in learning what's going on with her daughter. So, when the latest heroine knocks at the door -- a hysterical woman who says her name is Deirdre (this link tells Deirdre's story, but don't click on it if you don't want a kind of spoiler) -- Penny races off into the forest that surrounds the Homestead, a place her mother has always told her not to go after dark.

In the forest, Penny encounters a first: a man on a horse with an enormous sword -- claiming to be a king -- who is in frantic and violent search of Deirdre. (No heroine has ever come through with her male protagonist before ... maybe) Eager to get rid of the houseguest, Penny agrees to help him; but instead, her story gets her committed to the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. Penny is beginning to feel like she's in her own version of a heroine's story.

I enjoyed this a lot, mostly for the English-major thrill of watching Favorite install familiar (and not so familiar ... I've never read Franny and Zooey) characters into the modern surroundings of the Homestead. Since they never leave the Homestead the fun is more how Penny and Anne-Marie react to the heroines and their eventual plight. (Anne-Marie never tells them what's in store for them once they return to their stories.) Since I was a teenager at the same time as Penny, it was also fun to take that trip down memory lane in clothing, music, sultry Midwestern summers with nothing to do and, naturally, Richard Nixon. When the novel switches to the psych ward, it takes on another type of a classic feel: how many stories have taken place within the closed society that is a mental hospital?

It's been more than five years since I listened to Charlotte Parry read an audio- book, but she never does a poor narration. She surprised me here in The Heroines with her natural American accent, as I've always heard her read with an English one. Of course, in this novel, she gets to read with all sorts of accents as she portrays the heroines ... French, English, Southern American, Irish, as well as what I'll call olde American speech for Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl. (Katherine Kellgren speaks similarly here.)

Parry gets to further showcase her talents with the diverse medical staff and patients of the psych ward, a young pothead who helps her escape, and the Germanic inflections of the Homestead's iron-willed housekeeper.  All the accents aside, it's her portrayal of the smart and moody Penny that is a real standout. All Penny's boredom, anger and adolescent attention-seeking is clear in Parry's first-person narration. It's a stellar performance, enjoyable from start to finish.

In the department-of-slightly-amusing, four books ago I listened to one called Hero. I admit to liking it when things accidently work out like that; it makes me think I've got a plan. I like having a plan.

[The eponymous letter from the 1878 edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. And because I can't resist a photograph of the English countryside, here is Wuthering Heights, courtesy of Gary Rogers and the Geograph Project (and Wikimedia Commons).]

The Heroines by Eileen Favorite
Narrated by Charlotte Parry
Recorded Books, 2008.  7:50

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Indicator species

I went off Barbara Kingsolver a few years ago. It was after I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her holier-than-thou ode to rich white people who make the only choice possible in today’s mixed-up, polluted world: to eat only what you grow. Might be nice, I frequently muttered while reading this book, if you don’t need to pay the mortgage and see an occasional movie. But my book group chose Flight Behavior, and so I reluctantly returned. When I saw that Kingsolver herself read the novel, I briefly wavered, but the devil on my shoulder pointed out that listening to her could provide additional reasons to dislike her.  Just to be clear: I loved her early books, particularly those about the endearing Turtle (The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven). It was only when she began lecturing me that our relationship went sour.

Flight Behavior has its share of lectures, but in-between is some beautiful writing and an interesting heroine. Dellarobbia Turnbow – married at 16 to a momma’s boy and 12 years' later a desperate housewife and mother of two – has decided to have an affair. She’s trudging across her in-laws’ mountainous property in Appalachian Tennessee to meet the mailman for some illicit sex in an abandoned cabin, when she happens upon a glen that is shimmering gold in the sunlight. When she gets closer, she realizes that the trees are full of Monarch butterflies – mostly hanging upside down as they prepare to hunker down for the winter. Only trouble is, the butterflies are in the wrong place – they should be wintering over in Mexico, but the town where millions of them converge each winter has experienced environmental devastation: the deforested mountain slid down into the village destroying the Monarchs’ habitat. Whatever is inside their (fictional) migrating brains has told them to settle on the Turnbow sheep farm.

The farm is part of a backward, dying mountain community, but – once word gets out about the butterflies – Dellarobbia’s mother-in-law realizes that there might be some economic gain, and so she prevents her husband’s sale of the land for timber. Some scientists, led by a transplanted Virgin Islander named Ovid Byron, arrive to begin evaluating the situation. Dellarobbia befriends the scientists and soon finds herself as a lab assistant making more money than her somewhat dim, truck-driving husband.

The book is metaphor gone wild. Dellarobbia has also landed in the wrong place, where her life is in the balance and her journey to this realization and moves to save herself form the meat of this lengthy novel. Since she grew up in this small town, I was never quite sure how she managed to become so superior to its other residents. She has a lot of self-awareness and spends a lot of time smugly feeling how much smarter and more worldly she is. (Frankly, she gets a little tiresome.)

Kingsolver does lecture, mostly using Ovid as her mouthpiece, but she also brings out – through Dellarobbia, mostly – how very difficult it is for poor people to make positive environmental choices. There is a scene where a do-gooder is hanging out with the butterflies petitioning visitors to pledge to act in ways that can slow climate change and practically everything on his list requires at least a middle income – drive a hybrid car, buy at local markets, don’t send stuff to the landfill, etc. Maybe those nasty thoughts I sent her way made an impact.

The writing, as I said earlier, is lovely – her word painting of the town, the farm, the mountain, the glen where the butterflies are hanging out, Dellarobbia’s tired little prefab house, a sheep-shearing barn, even a massive used-goods store are clear and vivid. They never sounded writerly or too-too literary to me. It’s a pleasure to let these descriptions wash over you.  Her characters are not terribly complex, but even the smallest portrayal is sharp and telling.

And, I gotta say (not even grudgingly) Kingsolver does a very good job of reading.  Her slow, soft Appalachian inflections are just right for this book – which takes its time as it tells the story of one long winter. She doesn’t make a lot of character differentiation – slightly deeper for men, harsher for her mother-in-law, and more drawl-y for the town’s various, uneducated denizens. She goes all out for Ovid, though, giving him what sounds to me like an authentic and consistent Caribbean lilt (until he says he is from St. Thomas (St. John?), I – like everyone else – assumed he was Jamaican … but if there is a distinction between these two speech patterns [and I’m sure there is], my ears wouldn’t know). When Ovid is giving one of Kingsolver’s lectures on climate change and how we are wasting our last chances to make it right, they are entirely tolerable in his rhythms and vowels.

If I have one complaint, it was Kingsolver’s inability to decide how Dellarobbia’s name is pronounced. Mostly, she used a long o in the third syllable, but a long u popped up on more than one occasion.

So, maybe it’s time to try another Kingsolver. I’ve got personal copies of both The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, but I’m feeling more inclined to go back to her earliest books.  They’re on audio.

[The exquisite photograph of the Monarch butterfly was taken by Thomas Bresson. Dellarobbia tells us that she is named after a fruit wreath, but then Ovid tells her that there was a 15th century Italian sculptor by that name. The terracotta relief of Alexander the Great, dellarobbia added later, is from Luca's son Andrea. It hangs in Vienna's Kuntsthistorisches Museum; the photograph is by Vassil. Both images were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Narrated by the author
HarperAudio, 2012. 16:56 

Monday, November 4, 2013

It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people

The Lifeboat intrigued. I had a hold on it almost as soon as I'd heard about it (but it took me a year to get around to it!): Ocean liner passengers stranded in a lifeboat for weeks, small universe ("locked room"), life and death. Charlotte Rogan's first novel fit right onto my historical fiction reading list, plus I needed a seven-hour book for a car journey.

Grace Winter is an ambitious young woman, journeying back to America on the Empress Alexandra with her new husband in August 1914. After some years of poverty and uncertainty following the death of her father, her future looks bright, if she can win over her formidable mother-in-law. After five days at sea, though, disaster strikes and Grace finds herself in Lifeboat #14, overloaded with 39 men and women (and one child). The circumstances under which Grace got into the lifeboat are murky -- Grace herself doesn't quite remember -- and the events that occurred during three weeks at sea are also somewhat obscured.

It's important that Grace blow away some of the fog, however, as she finds herself fighting for her life -- along with two other women, Ursula Grant and Hannah West -- for the murder of another passenger and Empress Alexandra crewman, John Hardie. Her lawyers suggest that she write about her ordeal, and The Lifeboat is Grace's highly suspect account. These same lawyers are ready to consider an insanity defense depending on what she produces.

Some on the boat claim they saw Grace's husband slip a package to John Hardie who then recalled Lifeboat #14 on its way down the side of the ship in order for him and Grace to step on. But Hardie's story (and whatever was in his pocket) went over the side when Ursula and Hannah (and Grace?) wrestled him overboard after two weeks at sea. Grace claims ignorance of her husband's actions.

Don't read this for a tidy conclusion (you may have, as Grace's psychologist does [according to Grace] "a childish desire to know"), read it as a survival story of unbearable suspense and mystery with the ultimate in unreliable, unsympathetic narrators -- a woman who may not want/be able to tell the truth or whose truth is only one version of what happened.  I liked it a lot, but Rogan asks a great deal of the reader -- ultimately you have to decide what happened based on what you learn about Grace's character ... which, of course, you only have her word on what that character is. Delicious!

And while I really like the cover of the book (Rogan credits Emma Graves in her acknowledgements) -- that small boat in that large sea with that lowering sky -- there simply aren't enough people in that 23-foot-long boat! (You can see a more close-up version of the cover at Rogan's website.)

A new-to-me narrator, Rebecca Gibel (pro- nounced like giggle, only with b's), reads the novel.  She portrays Grace with an intelligence and craftiness that constantly caused this listener to remind herself that the narrative she provides is only what she wants me to hear. I kept my ears peeled for the tiniest clues. Gibel's reading is fairly straightforward and unemotional, with dramatic dialogue for variety. These conversations had significant impact -- the clues are in there, aren't they? -- as they are so different from Gibel's narration.

The audiobook opens and closes with some evocative dirge-like music, sounding very much like what might be played at a burial-at-sea.  I heard something else I've never heard on an audiobook before:  During a lengthy reading of the credits at the conclusion that included a brief warning against theft and piracy, the speaker says "Thank you for your support of the author's rights."

I'm very fond of an unreliable narrator, but this is the kind of book where reading it as a group would be helpful.  Others' opinions of what really happened can help a reader figure out why she's made her particular decisions. I won't divulge what my conclusion is, but I might if someone shares theirs in the comments.

[The map of the Empress Alexandra's voyage comes from the author's website.]

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Narrated by Rebecca Gibel
Hachette Audio, 2012.  7:47

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Through the eyes of a (wise and too observant) child

In my line of work, I am reading "for work" all the time (unpaid time, naturally), but now that I've left committee commitments behind me there's very little that I have to read in order to do my job.  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar comes under this category, as I'm running a Muslim Journeys "reading and discussion series" and this short novel of a young boy's life in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya was our first title.

The novel is simple, yet profound. Suleiman is the only child of educated and well-off parents -- his father is a businessman with international connections and his young mother, Najwa, is clearly chafing under the restrictions of her gender, her arranged marriage, motherhood, pretty much her world. She becomes "ill" when her husband is away, taking medicine that the reader quickly realizes is alcohol, and she treats Suleiman more of a confidante rather than her child when she is drinking (among other things, she tells him of her wedding night and her attempted abortion), but it's clear that she loves him deeply.

It's 1979, ten years after Gaddafi overthrew the Libyan king, and the state security apparatus is in full flower. A close neighbor has been arrested and soon names names -- all but the name of Suleiman's father. He is tried and executed on television, which Suleiman watches. Even though the neighbor does not implicate Suleiman's father, he is soon arrested as well. Najwa does everything -- abasing herself at another neighbor's, a man high up the government -- to get him released from prison. As the situation in Libya devolves into even more terror, Suleiman is sent to live at a family friend's in Cairo, never to return.

In the Country of Men is a beautifully written piece of literature, with lush descriptions of the desert and the sea, of Suleiman's suburban neighborhood sitting in the harsh sun, of food and of characters whose names are difficult to distinguish and remember, but whose vivid personalities help to keep them straight; the author doesn't stint either on descriptions of torture, sex and death.  Scheherazade is a delicate metaphor for those around Suleiman who must tell stories in order to survive.  My western sensibilities were horrified at what nine-year-old Suleiman witnessed, both in his own home and outside, but knowing the story is told by him as an adult makes it tolerable. Suleiman is a watcher, an observer of secrets, so there's always a feeling of distance from his narration; it's seems to be his way of coping with what he's experienced.

The narrator Stephen Hoye reads the novel. His sonorous voice tells Suleiman's story with deliberation and precision, that again provides distance from the horrors he is reliving. He provides a slight sing-song rhythm to his delivery that I wonder was an attempt to bring a little Arabic poetry to the story. Other than the names (including a little guttural 'mutt' in the author's last name), Hoye speaks in a neutral American accent. He creates believable characters through lively dialogue that he reads in sharp contrast to the narrative text. A sinister government agent who befriends Suleiman is appropriately threatening. It is Suleiman's intelligent and angry mother who is particularly vivid in Hoye's narration (and, of course, in Matar's prose). Her character is the most complex in the story -- a drunk, an inappropriate sharer with her young son, but the person with the courage to hold her family together, and then to break it apart. More than Suleiman, Najwa is living in Matar's country of men.

The book group served its purpose here: I would never have chosen to read this book, but I'm glad I did. I learned of a history and a culture about which I knew nearly nothing. Am I more tolerant of that previously unknown culture, I'm not so sure. The writing is beautiful. I might find time to listen to his second book as well, since it too is brief. The New Yorker essay he published earlier this year about his return (after decades) to Libya to look for/learn the fate of his kidnapped and imprisoned father is moving and devastating.

[The 19th century oil painting by Ferdinand Keller, Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
Narrated by Stephen Hoye
Tantor Media, 2007.  7:52