Sunday, December 28, 2014

So-called poet

Occasionally I say that a post will be short because I can't remember anything about a book listened to long ago, but it always seems that I find something to say (and say). I don't think this will be the case with Snow. My second encounter in 2014 with Orhan Pamuk. All I can say is thank goodness for John Lee; I would never have made it through this book without him. This man's writing is dense and ultimately I'm not sure what he is saying.

Unlike the previous Pamuk I listened to, Snow is fiction. Like it, it was published before Pamuk won the Nobel Prize, in 2002. It appeared in English in 2004.

A poet who goes by his initials, Ka, has returned to Turkey after 12 years in exile in Germany in order to bury his mother. He decides to stay for a while, finding work as a journalist in order to investigate a spate of suicides by young girls forced to stop wearing their head scarves in a small city in northeastern Turkey called Kars. Note that 'kar' [which f&^king Blogger keeps changing to car] is the Turkish word for snow (and was the title of the original book). Ka has an ulterior motive; to reconnect with an old lover, Ipek, living in Kars with her father and sister. He makes his way through a growing blizzard to get there. Soon after his arrival, the roads are closed and the city is isolated.

Everything is a little tense in Kars as a result of the suicides. The secular government is enforcing the law forbidding the wearing of head scarves in school but there is open protest against it. Shortly after his arrival, Ka witnesses the assassination of the school official who implemented the law. He is also immediately inspired to write a poem, "Snow," his first in a long time. Later that evening, during a live televised drama/variety show (?), the military (and the secular government) stage a coup [not clear here ... how can there be a coup if they were in charge?] shooting up the audience and arresting so-called Islamists.

The rest of this very lengthy book is lost to the sands of time. Ka is interrogated by the military police since he was seen in the company of the well-known leader of the Islamists, Blue. Ipek's sister plans a televised protest where she will remove her headscarf (in some unclear-to-me political gesture) as part of a performance. Ipek agrees to marry Ka and move with him back to Germany.

At some point, the omniscient third person narrator fast forwards a few years to the murder of Ka on the streets of Frankfurt. His name is Orhan and he's a novelist and Ka was his friend and he's telling us the story of Kars using Ka's journals. How very meta.

I find I have absolutely no notes on the narration, so go back to the earlier Pamuk/Lee collaboration to find out how great a reader of this dense prose John Lee is. His is a lovely reading voice so that part wasn't painful, and he reads Pamuk's descriptive sections as if they were poetry.

Snow was the second to last of the nine Muslim Journeys books that I read with my library discussion group. (Not many of us liked it.) There were three really memorable books on this list for me: In the Country of Men, Dreams of Trespass, and Minaret. But what was more memorable was this group of readers: Enthusiastic, thoughtful, receptive, and very bonded. I hope we can figure out some way to continuing reading together.

[There is an actual Kars, and this is a panoramic photograph of it. It was taken by Bjorn Christian Torrissen (apologies for leaving out the "slashed o's" as they screwed up my formatting) and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons (click on that link for a bigger picture and its detailed caption).]

Snow by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Narrated by John Lee
Random House Audio, 2007. 18:32

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Duck and cover

The year that Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis brought out the first Wildwood book (2011), the Portland literature festival, Wordstock, went a little gaga. I was working at the festival and wandered into one of the not-Main-Stage venues and found myself listening to an author about to publish her first book for children and who seemed to share a last name with Mr. Meloy. Her book sounded good, but only after someone asked a question did I twig that Maile Meloy (she kindly provides a link to pronouncing her name) and Colin are siblings.

Meloy's book was The Apothecary. Janie Scott's parents have made an unexpected move from Los Angeles to London in the early 1950s. They claim to have gotten a great job offer writing for a British television series, but they eventually get around to explaining the blacklist to Janie. It doesn't make her feel much better about leaving all her friends in sunny Southern California for a dreary post-war London and a snooty school for which she doesn't have the right clothes.

Hoping to cheer her up, her father takes her to the neighborhood apothecary for a cure for homesickness where she meets the proprietor's moody son, Benjamin Burrows. Benjamin doesn't want to be an apothecary as his father insists; he wants to be a spy.

(Ooh, I'm getting fuzzier on the details!) Somehow, Janie (and Benjamin) learns that Benjamin's father is part of an international group of magician/scientists hoping to bring to halt the Russian testing of a special nuclear bomb. Of course, there are magician/scientists working for the Soviets as well, including Andrei Sakharov. When Mr. Burrows is taken away by a German with a nasty scar, Janie and Benjamin use his ancient Pharmacopoeia to disguise themselves (into birds) and stow away on board the ship heading to a remote island in the Baltic Sea carrying some magical equipment that will make time stand still and destroy the Russian bomb.

Many magical adventures featuring disobedient teenagers ensue, including living through a nuclear blast. I remember enjoying this, but -- aside from the well-drawn and unusual setting -- it's pretty much like every other kid-using-magical-powers-to-save-the-world novel: It's funny, occasionally gross, very slightly romantic, suspenseful and full to the top with dastardly villains (including a few of the "school" variety).

I listened to a book read by Cristin Milioti a few years ago and didn't like it very much, but I wanted to give her another chance. She does a good job here portraying 14-year-old Janie in her first person narrative. Milioti's got a slightly husky, but suitably youthful, delivery and invests Janie with appropriate independence (she doesn't buy the propaganda in the Duck and Cover film she's shown in school). She reads quickly but knows how to stretch out the suspenseful bits. Janie's a girl with strong emotions and these are evident in Milioti's reading.

She's got a fairly large cast of characters to portray, with accents all over the map. In addition to the English characters, there's a Cockney pickpocket, a Chinese scientist, a Hungarian who can stop time, some Germans, the Russians and a couple of others. Her accents sound natural to me and she switches easily between them in dialog. Except for Janie, Benjamin, and Pip the pickpocket, everyone else is an adult, and Milioti does a good job differentiating between the ages and genders.

The novel begins with Janie describing that she can't remember the events she's about to relate, but she's reconstructed the story from her diary, a diary that was recently returned to her from an undisclosed location by Benjamin. All through this note to the reader, there is this underbed of kind-of 1950s movie soundtrack music; lots of strings and yearning. The music returns at the end, with more piano.

Reading Meloy's sequel to this novel doesn't interest me much, but I might read one of her books for adults. Maybe some short stories.

[Janie and Benjamin are instructed to bring the Pharmacopoeia to someone in the Chelsea Physic Garden, but they arrive too late! This photo from the Garden was taken by La Citta Vita and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
Narrated by Cristin Milioti
Penguin Audio, 2011.  7:35

Friday, December 26, 2014

Long live the proletariat

Completely unintentionally I find myself in Paris for the next book in the list as well. Cara Black's Aimée Leduc Investigations feature a French-American private eye who solves crimes oriented in a specific Paris neighborhood. She's up to 15, but I just finished number three: Murder in the Sentier. Published more than 10 years ago and set even further back in time (1994), Aimée is distracted (as she always is) from her actual employment analyzing business security issues using the high tech of the day by a phone call from Jutta Hald who said she knew Aimée's long-lost mother, when they shared a prison cell.

What follows is a wild ride (seemingly the only way that Aimée operates) that takes Aimée back to the 1970s when Europe was roiled by home-grown terrorists like the Baader-Meinhof Gang (here called Haader-Rofmein). As Aimée digs deeper into the past, the bodies pile up in the present. But Aimée can't forget the mother who left her when she was eight years old and believes that the remaining members of Action-Réaction can tell her what happened.

And I'm afraid that's all I can remember. I have a note that says Modigliani (pretty useless after three months!) which I think means that a long-lost artwork by Amedeo Modigliani might have been lifted by Action-Réaction when they kidnapped a wealthy German businessman. And that artwork might be the key to the contemporary mystery.

The jury's still out for me regarding Aimée Leduc. She annoys me rather than intrigues. Her approach to everything is to wade in without the facts and yet somehow she keeps her faltering business in the black. She's kind of a bad friend, to her business partner René and others. And she occasionally seems a little superhuman. For instance, what I do remember in this book is Aimée fleeing the police after she finds Jutta Hald's dead body by ducking into a tattoo parlor and getting a tattoo!! Really? Then there's the running around she does in a skintight catsuit and stilettos. I believe a wildly colored wig was also involved. This seems a bit much to me.

Carine Montbertrand narrates the novel (and the series). She has French bonafides (like Aimée she has an American mother and a French father) and she pronounces all the French places and names with authenticity. Aimée = A (long vowel sound)-may. Sentier = SOHN-tee-a (again with the long a). She handles the German accents of Jutta Hald (and another character) with confidence. I'm glad she chose to have all the French speakers not speak with French accents (I find this really distracting) except when they are saying names.

The pronunciation of Montbertrand's own last name (her first is just as it appears) is missing the first t and the last d, i.e., MON-bear-trawn, and -- most interestingly -- the author's first name is CARE-ah, not CAR-ah. (Enough about this.)

Montbertrand's an experienced narrator with lots of credits to her name. She has a pleasantly husky voice and keeps the novel moving. Black writes in somewhat short sentences, which can give an audiobook a choppy feel, but Montbertrand goes a long way in smoothing out the narrative.

I like the design for Black's series, published by Soho Press, up until the last three (you can see them here). The blue edging and the black and white (or all-but bleached of color) evocative photos have unfortunately been replaced by a much larger author name, "murder" in red, and a silhouette of Aimée in front of an overly bright "French" image. They've lost their atmosphere. The red M on the cover of the audiobook is that of the Métro de Paris, but it's possible to confuse this with M for murder.

[Wikipedia states that this is a "typical street in the neighborhood, Rue du Sentier." This photo was taken by Mbzt and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Murder in the Sentier (Aimée Leduc Investigations, Book 3) by Cara Black
Narrated by Carine Montbertrand
Recorded Books, 2010.  10:54

My! What big eyes you have!

Marissa Meyer was one of the debut authors I read the year I was on the William C. Morris YA Debut Award (2013). Book One of her series, The Lunar Chronicles, was eligible and I read and enjoyed Cinder, particularly the original ways she twisted the familiar fairy tale; like Cinder having a missing foot (instead of a shoe). The larger picture of Meyer's Chronicles -- a very nasty Queen intent on conquering Earth from the Moon (and the fact that Cinder might be related to this Queen) -- wasn't as interesting to me, but I liked it enough to want to find out more. A considerable time later I managed to get to Scarlet.

(I am currently filled to the brim with these three [I include Meyer's third inspiration] tales as they all show up in Into the Woods, which I braved the Christmas Day crowds to see. Even though I have a loyalty to original versions -- be they plays or books -- I quite enjoyed this movie.)

So, Scarlet. Scarlet riffs on Little Red Riding Hood, and the Scarlet in this novel favors a red hoodie. She runs a small farm in the French countryside with her ... grandmother and comes home one day to find her missing. Searching for her, she meets a "professional" streetfighter who goes by ... Wolf who (ooh ... details a bit fuzzy) helps her escape the interest of some other fighters, who are looking for something of her grandmother's in the farmhouse. She's kind of a pill, though, and against everyone's advice she travels to Paris where she believes her grandmother to be.

Meanwhile, we find Cinder in a maximum security prison, which she manages to break out of accompanied by the wisecracking, Han-Solo-like Captain Thorne. Somehow (remember those details have gone blurry), she knows she needs to get to Paris for some answers ... perhaps from Scarlet's grandmother? Well, you know what happens then. They all fly off to find Rapunzel, obviously.

I didn't think this had the same originality in skewing the original tale as Cinder, and the whole story felt like a bridge to the next installment. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but not much came out leading to a big revelation or an aha moment (beyond the one we all but knew about Cinder). The characters weren't very interesting; Scarlet is a whiner, Wolf is a wounded hunk in need of the right woman, and the Captain's schtick just gets old fast. Cinder, though, I'm still invested in.

I opted to listen to this because of the narrator, Rebecca Soler. I'd heard her read a Sarah Dessen book years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how authentic and teen-friendly she sounded. When I learned she was the voice of The Lunar Chronicles it seemed a good idea to listen to one installment. She keeps up the teen voice successfully here and gives the novel a brisk pace that maintains the interest in the lengthy story. The transitions between Scarlet's and Cinder's adventures are clear and seamless.

Soler tries to give some of the characters (including Scarlet) French accents and these all sound a little "ooh-la-la" to me and are wildly inconsistent. Some people have them, but not all the time. She does show some skill in computer voice, though. Cinder has a robot servant/friend, Iko, who is currently just a thumb drive. She installs Iko into the operating system of Captain Thorne's ship and chats with Cinder in a nicely mechanical voice.

There's some vaguely suspenseful (driving beat, ominous chords) music that begins and ends the audiobook. It's barely there, but it works as an intro.

The conclusion of The Lunar Chronicles is scheduled for publication in November, with Winter.  I'm sure the author had "claimed" The Snow Queen long before Frozen-mania. The series has plenty of fans already and doesn't need a tie to that movie to be successful. There are some Frozen tweens who could segue right into this series -- plenty of clean romance and lots of strong women (although the author does have a slightly regrettable tendency to check the true-love box for each of her heroines). On to Cress for me (but shouldn't it be Tress?).

(Yikes! I've linked to not one but two Disney movies in this post!)

[This Big Bad Wolf (who isn't Red's nemesis, but The Three Little Pigs') was found at Gay Pride in Paris in 2011. The photo was taken by Marcus Povey and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, Book 2) by Marissa Meyer
Narrated by Rebecca Soler
Macmillan Audio, 2013.  11:19

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Preach it!

My book group selected I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shortly after the death of its author, Maya Angelou (pronounced Ann-gel-low) this past spring. I think the reason I've never read this woman's work is because I'm generally not a fan of poetry or memoir and I probably won't read any more, but I am glad for this brief exposure. And to hear her familiar voice read this book was an added treat.

I Know Why ... begins with the arrival of three-year-old Marguerite Johnson at the home of her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas in the early 1930s. Maya, her beloved brother Bailey's nickname for her, had been sent there (along with Bailey) when her parents' "calamitous" marriage disintegrated. Taken under the formidable wing of her loving grandmother, whom she calls Momma, Maya observed the lives of African Americans in the deep South, formed by cruelty, poverty and active churchgoing.

This memoir ends with Maya graduating from high school, giving birth to her only child and reconnecting with her distant mother as she struggled to attach to the baby. She'd already lived a pretty full lifetime at this point, including sexual abuse, running away from home and living rough, and -- in a brief moment of levity -- working hard to get a job as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Yet this was only the beginning of her many adventures, recounted in six subsequent memoirs.

Angelou's writing is beautiful, naturally. My erratic notetaking consists of disc and track numbers where I mentally jotted a phrase or sentence that rang out. I'll share just one but, trust me, there are hundreds. Here, she's describing the condition of the food sitting out and awaiting the conclusion of a long sermon Maya is convinced has bored God to death: "the eggs had withdrawn from the edge of platter to bunch in the center like children left out in the cold, and the catheads had sat down on themselves with the conclusiveness of a fat woman sitting in an easy chair."

I think we're all familiar with Angelou's speaking voice. It's resonant and slightly hoarse tinged with a bit of the South. She reads her memoir with plenty of expression but it's not a performance (even though one of Angelou's careers was acting). You can tell that she's lived this story and knows what to emphasize and what to let pass by. Occasionally she runs out of breath in the middle of a sentence leaving an odd silence but I'm willing to let these pass. I give her this pass because she also sings hymns several times in the narrative. And you know I love me some audiobook singing!

(In the other childhood self-narrated memoir from an African American writer that I heard this year, I'm glad to say that National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson sings as well.)

The intro and outgo of this audiobook feature some church-ish music, sounding like the opening chords of a hymn before the choir comes in. Just perfect for this memoir. And I must mention the magisterial "I am Maya Angelou" that comes from the author/reader in these sections. No wimpy "read by the author" statement for this fine lady!

[Stamps Ice & Fuel Co. may still have been around when Maya lived nearby in the 1930s. This photo is from 1904 and is from a book about the Louisiana and Arkansas railways. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Narrated by the author
Books on Tape, 2011. 10:11


So, the teen book buzz all summer was for E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. Fittingly, I finally got my hold just as summer came to an end, perhaps a perfect time for this book about the last summer of one's childhood.

If you haven't read this book, maybe you know that it contains a revelation that alters everything you have read before, so just the briefest of synopses is possible. Cadence Sinclair Eastman is back on her family's private island off the coast of Massachusetts for what she calls Summer 17. Beechwood Island is occupied by Cady's grandparents (the Sinclairs), their three daughters, and their grandchildren. Cady and her two cousins are the oldest and -- along with the nephew of her step uncle, the Indian (subcontinent)-American, Gat -- are the Liars.

The Liars do what teenagers do during the summer. The Liars are smart and understand their privilege, but they still enjoy it. They see the tensions that have bubbled up between their recently bereaved grandfather and his daughters. They realize that Gat is not quite "one of us," but utterly accept him. He and Cady fall in love over Summer 15.

But something is different about Summer 17. Soon we learn that Cady had a mysterious, debilitating accident during Summer 15 and was unhappily traveling in Europe with her divorced father in Summer 16. She spends her time emailing the other Liars, but they don't reply. She is thrilled to be able to reconnect with the Liars and has very high expectations for this Summer.

I'll just say that while what was revealed was something of a surprise to me (others have said they saw it coming a mile off), however as it got closer it became obvious so that the actual twist was kind of dud. If I'd really enjoyed this book, I might have re-read just to catch the clues (it's not very long), but frankly I didn't care much about this young woman and her friends. It's not that her problems are those of the 1%, but that I couldn't get beyond her mooniness and self-absorption enough to want to care about her.

And, in the department-of-unanswered-questions, why are the teens the Liars? I don't need everything spelled out for me, but there must be something there ... Sinclair/Liar?

Since it's been so long since I listened to this (although the reveal is still quite clear) and the other audiobooks, I have it running in the background while I write this. Cady, in the first person, starts off letting you know something is wrong and so does Ariadne Meyers, the narrator. She reads in a pleasantly hoarse voice tinged with illness and hopelessness. You can hear the pain -- her accident has left her with unbearable headaches and blackouts-- in her narration. She reads precisely, almost as if she can't let the emotions go for fear of what might happen if she does. Then, when Cady tells us what actually happened, all those banked and denied feelings come free in Meyers' reading. It's a very moving narration, one that almost changed my mind about the book.

I've read (or listened to) a lot of E. Lockhart and so enjoy her smart, funny and empowered (I listened  to this one pre-blog) young women. And maybe what I really didn't like here is that Cady is so different from these teens. She's actually not much fun to be around (even before you know what's going on). I can appreciate Lockhart's work here, she carefully builds a world and just as carefully tears it down, but it's a cold appreciation.

[This photo is of Beechwoods at Giffordlands, Dalry, North Ayrshire, Scotland was taken by Rosser1954 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Narrated by Ariadne Meyers
Listening Library, 2014. 6:27

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wild card

In the department-of-weird, I finished Mary Doria Russell's Doc just about a year to the day after finishing her Dreamers of the Day. Of course, this was months ago. But this story is completely fresh in my mind, thanks to a wonderful narrator -- Mark Bramhall -- who immerses himself into the book and the indelible character of John Henry Holliday, DDS. How delighted I am to learn that Russell couldn't say goodbye to him either, as her next novel -- coming in March -- takes Doc and the other famous denizens of Dodge City, Kansas to their date with destiny in Tombstone, Arizona.

But this book brings Doc only to Dodge City. In its early chapters we learn of Doc's birth and childhood in antebellum Georgia, his education as a dentist, and of the bout of tuberculosis that began the long, slow weakening of his lungs and sent him West seeking a drier climate that would hopefully bring about a cure. Doc's travels first took him to Texas, from which -- when his love of drinking and gambling (and his realization that he could make more money playing cards than he could practicing dentistry) brought him trouble along with an attempt on his life -- he needed to make a quick exit. He was also a skilled gunfighter. After additional travels -- and meeting a lawman named Wyatt Earp -- he found himself in the truly wild west town of Dodge City, Kansas. It was 1878 and Doc was 26 years old.

Russell's chapter headings take us through a poker game, i.e., from "First Hand" through to "Cashing Out" and "The Rake." Their use is timely, particularly while listening, as a hint of what is to come. As in, when Bramhall reads, "Third Hand: Ladies High," trouble in the female department is likely ahead.

But once Doc arrives in Dodge, there's not much plot remaining in the novel. Doc sets up his practice, he establishes his bona fides in the town's gambling houses, he makes friends, he has debilitating bouts with the TB and equally horrific quarrels with his long-time companion (and practicing prostitute), Katie Horony. He is always a Southern gentlemen with elegant manners and, despite his extra-legal activities, Doc seems to act from integrity.

No, a listener doesn't need a plot here, because the characters are so glorious. Russell gives us these exquisite little character studies -- both fictional and real: Doc's overprotective mother, the plodding, methodical Wyatt Earp and his horse Dick Nailer, his more handsome and popular brother Morgan, Sheriff Bat Masterson (who also owns a saloon, although pretty much every businessman in Dodge owned a saloon and had married [or was living with] a prostitute), the knowing young daughter of the owner of the general store (and politician), Irish vaudevillian Eddie Foy, a compassionate Austrian Jesuit, a young biracial (black and Native American) orphan educated by the Jesuits who dies in a suspicious fire, and fiery Big Nose Kate, the love (and bane) of Doc's life, who followed him until the end, and who cultivated his mythology.

All are brought to vivid life by Bramhall, who is masterful in his command of this sprawling novel. He reads the narrative in a baritone, slightly scratchy Western twang that provides a picture of a slightly boozy cowboy, booted feet up on the table, drinking whiskey, spitting tobacco telling this drawn-out story in his own sweet time. All of the characters are voiced and the voices are compelling and consistent. There's a husky breathiness to Doc's speech indicative of his straining lungs, and his Georgia origins are clear in the slow drawl of his dialog. While Dodge's law- and businessmen have all ceased to be unique in the nearly four months since I heard this, in their dialog it was always clear who was speaking.

International accents are called for and provided -- Katie's Hungarian, the Jesuit's Austrian, the Chinese laundryman, the Irish Foy. There is a truly hilarious scene when the Jesuit arrives in Dodge and many in the town line up for confession. Each voice is unique, the hint of each story perfect in just a few lines of text. Bramhall switches effortlessly from one to another.

Mary Doria Russell just does not disappoint (me). I've read every single one of her books and enjoyed them all. Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral is something to look forward to. I wonder who will read it?

[Evidently, there are a number of we're-not-sure-that-these-are-actually-photos-of-Doc-Holliday out there, but this one has "provenance" (according to Wikipedia, although the website from which it originates declares itself to be on "hiatus"). If this is indeed Doc, it was taken shortly after he left Dodge City. Note the luxurious mustache, designed perhaps to hide the scar created from his early surgery for a cleft palate (also disputed).]

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Narrated by Mark Bramhall
Books on Tape, 2011. 16:38

Monday, December 22, 2014

Stupid people should never read books

I must have picked up Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle: A History as part of my plan (see, another plan!) this year to read all librarian-ish youth award winners. I didn't really want to read it because I have read an Andrew Smith novel and one was plenty, but the Boston Globe-Horn Book fiction award went to Grasshopper Jungle and -- well, I wanted to stick with the plan. (Plans make me feel like I'm in control ... hah!) I do find it telling that Horn Book had not reviewed this title (Horn Book only publishes positive reviews) which says to me that the librarian/reviewer the editors handed this to didn't like it either. Smith is most definitely an acquired taste.

In this very peculiar book, we find ourselves in Ealing, Iowa where nothing much happens. Except an evil scientist who developed a mutant strain of something or other 40 years ago that some bored delinquents steal and accidentally release. Coming into contact with this strain will morph a human being into a giant praying-mantis/grasshopper-thing that lives only to eat (human flesh) and breed. Some other bored delinquents -- Austin Szerba and Robbie Brees -- are the first to figure out what's going on, evade exposure, discover the underground bunker (created by the mad scientist) where humans can survive the apocalypse, and do their best to save the world.

Alas, it is too late -- the creatures can reproduce too easily -- and Austin relates the entire adventure from the bunker, which he expands to be a history (note the subtitle) of himself, his Polish ancestors and what may come. The boy is whip smart, profane, hilarious, and obsessed with sex (he can't seem to decide whom he loves more -- gay best friend Robbie or deliciously handy girlfriend Shann -- or perhaps a three-way would be really the solution). He does an entire riff on whether/what he should name his testicles. He gets to fight the creatures in a special suit and a huge paintball gun. Austin is always right, it's the world (and people) around him that have fucked everything up. It's kind of like a boy heaven -- much like that of Hokey Pokey -- only these guys have clearly left the bicycles behind.

So, really, just not my kind of book at all. But I've no doubt that it's a great book for teen readers, make that teen boys. There's not much for the girls to do in this story, but that might be the author's point. I have to give Smith credit for creating an adolescent boy and staying inside his head consistently, without apology.

Philip Church reads the book, which might be his first narrator gig. He reads Austin's story in a rapid, deadpan manner which is perfectly appropriate for the distancing historical approach that the boy tells us he's providing, but this -- combined with the brief chapters, very short sentences and the lack of contractions in the narrative -- gets very tiring to listen to. The novel's action moments (when the creatures face off with some unsuspecting deputies, when the boys get suited up and head out with their guns, etc.) sound no different than Austin's stories of his Polish ancestors.

Church does a nice job creating a different voice for Robbie, a voice that's ever so slightly feminized without being swishy. On the other hand, his voice for Shann, and for the novel's other females, are generically girly and too childish. On the whole, Church does well in what I think is his debut. Led by the text, he handles fairly tough material consistently. His voice is pleasant to listen to and -- with practice -- he'll get better.

There's some slightly raucous rock 'n' roll music at the start and finish of the book. It sets the tone of the novel right off, as good intro music should.

There's buzz about this one, which might be good in that I'll have one book already finished when I get to next year's plan (to read all the youth awardees). On the not-so-good end, 100 Sideways Miles (the author's most recent book) is also being mentioned in the same sentence as the Printz. Will I have to read another book by Andrew Smith?

I could, of course, just ditch the plan. Noooooo ...

[Wikimedia Commons gave me this photo when I asked for a praying mantis (mantidae). It's from the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad.

[I like how the cover of this book can be both cleavage and antennae. The book also has these hot-yellow page edges (like gold leafing on a fancy old tome) that gives the whole book this sort-of otherworldly glow.]

Grasshopper Jungle: A History by Andrew Smith
Narrated by Philip Church
Penguin Audio, 2014.  9:20

Sunday, December 21, 2014

We'll always have Cairo

Welcome back friend(s). Sorry for the long silence. I've got a plan. I know I've said that before. But here I am on the first day of my week off determined to execute the plan. Said plan is to blog one audiobook on each day off between now and January 20 (the day I get off for celebrating MLK Jr.'s birthday). At first I was going to get all 17 audiobooks done this week, but that's not really a vacation. And boy do I need a vacation. So, yes, it's been three months, nearly four since I listened to a few of these books and I'm a lousy notetaker. Here we go.

I have no notes whatsoever about Olen Steinhauer's The Cairo Affair. It was an enjoyable spy novel but I do recall thinking that it was just a bit too complicated for a listener. Steinhauer does wrap up everything quite satisfactorily with each proffered tidbit coming back around to make sense. I like that. I really enjoyed the first of his "Tourist" trilogy and actually had the idea of listening to book 2 in that series, but -- based on this listen -- I think I'll eye read it instead (eventually).

No point in a synopsis, the details are long gone. (I finished this book on August 7.) The bare bones involve long-time diplomatic spouse Sophie Kohl who had a memorable honeymoon in the Balkans in the 1990s (in the midst of the war there) and has since trailed her husband Emmett from one post to another. While the couple was in Cairo in 2010 (or so), she had an affair (with Emmett's boss?) and she has just confessed this infidelity to Emmett at a romantic dinner in Budapest when he is shot dead in front of her. Feeling that his death is her fault, related in some way to what happened in Cairo, Sophie begins her own investigation. (She is right, of course.)

It's a thriller, it has all the usual spy novel ingredients -- world hotspots, secrets upon secrets, sympathetic enemies and threatening friends. I did like the double meaning of the Affair. Sophie's not a very nice person, yet her fate matters. The spy who eventually helps her seemed to appear somewhat late and conveniently in the story but it could also be that I completely forgot meeting him earlier. Regardless, he's a person I could read another novel about, whereas Sophie, not so much.

The delightful Edoardo Ballerini is the reader. No doubt this was part of the allure of listening (instead of reading) the novel. His precise baritone reveals no secrets but takes command of the story from the beginning. A listener knows she is in good hands. As stated earlier, I've got no notes which means that nothing in his performance was egregiously wrong (or fabulously right) and that pacing, suspense, dialog, international accents were all perfectly fine, thank you! Since a significant portion of the novel is from Sophie's viewpoint, he portrays her with a natural femininity.

What I do remember of this novel is that we hear events from several perspectives -- Emmett's murder, their honeymoon in the Balkans, a surreptitious incursion into Libya during the Arab Spring, the denouement, and others -- and Ballerini makes clear which character's view we are witnessing. His characters are consistent and vocally fascinating. Having enjoyed him in both Jess Walter's romantic saga and now a thriller, I'm pretty sure he can read anything. I'm glad that audio publishers haven't slotted him into a genre. I'll listen to him again.

I'll try to stick to a promise never to mention how far behind I am or how little I remember of the books to come. Fair warning: There's not much very exciting in what's to come either. The listening got kind of dull after this one.

[The trek into Libya in this book is terrifying. This photo was taken by Phil Ittner for the Voice of America pretty much at the "present" time of The Cairo Affair. Original caption: "Rebel fighters at positions outside Brega, Libya show their support for the opposition and their enthusiastic belief that they will overthrow the government in Tripoli, March 10, 2011." It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Macmillan Audio, 2014. 12:22

Monday, September 29, 2014

Nasty, dirty things, little girls are

Of the five 2014 Odyssey Award audiobooks (one I had already listened to and the others are here and here [haven't gotten around to Creepy Carrots yet]), Roald Dahl's Matilda was the one I was looking forward to the most. And not just because of its glamorous narrator, but because Matilda is one of those books that one can revisit several times with enjoyment. I've only read the book as an adult, but it has Dahl's anarchic appeal that makes it pretty much for anybody.

Matilda Wormwood is a genius child with extremely bad parents (they make her watch TV!) who learns to read at a very young age. At the library -- where she visits every day instead of sitting at home alone -- once she reads through the children's section, the librarian puts all sorts of books into her hands. Once she's old enough, she's thrilled to be able to go to school. There she meets her wonderful teacher, Miss Honey, along with the terrifying headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. But Matilda has powers that help her to best the nasty adults in her life and soon finds happiness with her proper family.

Dahl cheerfully skewers TV (how he hated TV), TV dinners, used car salesmen, self-obsessed adults, sadistic school teachers, plus more that I can't remember in this romp of a story. While Miss Trunchbull's violence toward her students is silly enough to not be threatening, Matilda's revenge on her and on her parents is beyond satisfying and pretty hilarious. What's not to like?

Add to this enticing package the delightful reading by Kate Winslet. Her narration of the text is nice and straightforward, leaving room for a broad range of character voices, full of humor and intelligence. Matilda speaks with a slightly nasal childishness that's very appealing, while Miss Honey has an ingenue's innocence. The Wormwoods are shrieky and bombastic, and the "deep and dangerous" voice of Miss Trunchbull is indeed that. Dahl describes her as physically able to "bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half," and Winslet helps us to visualize this monster with just her voice. Everyone has a bit of a working-class accent that adds a nice ordinariness to the novel's denizens.

The beginning and end of the novel are marked with a good 60 seconds of sprightly little tune that nicely encapsulates the story -- there's a bit of Miss Trunchbull in a percussive beginning which then segues into a sweeter melody that evokes the triumph of Miss Honey and Matilda.

In addition to the 1996 film, there's also Matilda the Musical. It won both the Olivier and the Tony Award for Best New Musical but do I really want to see the road show (when/if it arrives)? The answer to that is no ... isn't it lovely that Winslet is available practically anytime and at no charge to bring this story to vivid life?

[Perhaps the Wormwoods enjoyed this in front of the TV one night? This TV dinner was uploaded by Smile Lee and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Matilda by Roald Dahl
Narrated by Kate Winslet
Penguin Audio, 2013.  4:18

Monday, September 8, 2014

'Twere well it were done quickly

Could this be the first Alan Cumming narration I've heard that isn't a book for children? (The answer to that question is yes.) He can be rather adult in his performing and personal lives, but I don't think of him as a reader of books for grown-ups. Regardless, when I heard about this audio interpretation of his one-man Macbeth, I knew I would have to listen to it. And so I have.

Do you need a synopsis? Well, there's this Scottish lord-guy and he meets these three witches and they tell him that he's going to be King of Scotland. He tells his very ambitious wife this news and she pretty much convinces him that -- instead of waiting to become King -- he should be a little more active in bringing it about. So he kills King Duncan, and then he kills his friend Banquo who was the other witness to what those three witches said. And then the sons of King Duncan ally themselves with a good guy named Macduff and go to war against Macbeth, who by this time has gone a little whack. There's some more prophesying from the witches that convince Macbeth that he's invulnerable, but he's not. There are a lot of dead people at the end of the this play and the word blood appears in the text 42 times (according to college freshman Ivsuey on

Cumming set his theatrical version "in a clinical room deep within a dark psychiatric unit. [He] is the lone patient, reliving the infamous story and inhabiting each role himself. Closed circuit television cameras watch the patient's every move as the walls of the psychiatric ward come to life." However, it wasn't a one-man show (as I thought), other actors (including narrator Jenny Stirlin) are credited on the show webpage.

OK, it's all in the mind of a mentally ill person. Just listening, the play could have taken place in Glamis Castle or in the psych ward. Either way, it's just Cumming and the words. And it is something special. Cumming delivers nearly all the dialogue in his soft Scottish burr, with each of the characters given a distinct and natural sounding voice. I wish it hadn't been so long since I listened to this, because I can't remember many of the vocal details for the characters but once the action gets going and you only need to know a handful of voices, it is easy to determine who is speaking. Cumming is just superb when he reads women, so Lady Macbeth is sexy and confident and the witches are eerie and disturbing. Over all, in what is a fairly odd way to experience this play (or any play for that matter), Cumming manages to have ongoing dialogue with himself in an unaffected way.

There are very few audio effects, the only one I remember is the speech of the weird sisters, who sound distorted and their voices are occasionally mixed together.

Cumming also reads the stage directions, which are famously brief, in a slight whisper. Since the entry of every character is noted in the directions, this is very helpful when trying to keep characters straight.

On the other hand, if you aren't familiar with the Scottish play, I can see that hearing it this way could become mighty confusing. Who are all these people and what are they talking about? Without the stage action, i.e., the witches' dance around the bubbling cauldron, the drunken porter, Banquo's ghost pointing his bloody finger, Lady Macbeth wandering around in her nightgown, and the moving forest; it's hard to find a focal point to the story. It's just words.

The audiobook has original music, or music original to the play, that is interpolated between each of the five acts. It's by Max Richter and -- while tuneful -- it certainly reflects someone disordered in his own mind. Each break reveals a different piece of music, rather than the same 30-second squib. I so appreciate any thoughtful music added to audiobooks.

It turns out there are a few adult audiobooks narrated by the talented Mr. Cumming, one by Michael Ondaatje and another by Michael Cunningham. Possibly good stuff to be heard.

[When I was in college, I wrote a major paper on the English actress Ellen Terry. This is a very famous painting of her, by John Singer Sargent, in the role of Lady Macbeth. By all accounts, a triumph. The Tate Britain owns this painting and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Macbeth by William Shakespeare [oh yeah, forgot to mention that!]
Narrated by Alan Cumming
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012. 1:44

Thank you for smoking

As I begin to gather my thoughts here about Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies, two months or so after finishing it, I realize that it bears a somewhat embarrassing resemblance to a more recently completed audiobook, Mary Doria Russell's Doc. Both are historical fiction (taking place just ten years apart) based on actual people.  If I hadn't already declared myself deeply enmeshed in World War II, I would say that I have another unhealthy fixation on the Victorian era. But, as happens so often, I digress.

Beautiful Lies is the story of Maribel Campbell Lowe and her bohemian circle in 1887 London. Maribel is married to a radical member of Parliament, an avowed Socialist who is agitating for the rights of working class and unemployed Englishmen and women. She has exotic origins (born in Chile, educated in Paris), is addicted to nicotine in the form of cigarettes, she's recently taken up photography, and she (and her beloved -- if philandering -- husband) is hiding a really, really big secret about her origins. Should this secret come out, it would be the end of Edward's career and their prominent place in society. So, when an inquisitive newspaper reporter comes sniffing around at the same time that Maribel hears from her long-absent mother, the Campbell Lowes face possible ruin.

Clark's expertise in this novel is the way she incorporates an awful lot of strands into her basic plot -- we meet Buffalo Bill Cody and some of his Indian performers and watch a performance of his Wild West Show; the intricacies of early photography are explained in detail, as are the unusual natural portraits that Maribel specializes in; the Bloody Sunday Trafalgar Square riot and its aftermath (including an appearance by William Morris) is described; there is a brief foray into spiritualism; we even take a trip to Spain to explore a depleted mine. The novel doesn't feel stuffed, at least to me (I love details like this), but it makes it more impressionistic than a story with a compelling plot line (the oh-my-god-he-will-expose-us plot line turns out to be a bit of not-very-much).

Still I can't deny that the in-depth look into late Victorian political intrigue and society was fascinating to me. Maribel and Edward Campbell Lowe seem very modern in many ways, particularly Maribel with her cigarettes and camera. The couple is closely based on Robert and Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (although if you click on this link, the "secret" will be revealed ... as it is fairly early on in the novel), who are among the ranks of the many Victorians who belie the era's reputation for conservatism and a love of the status quo. Clark's lengthy author's note is full of interesting information and she draws excellent parallels between 1887 and 2012, including our cult of celebrity.

A long-time narrator with several narrator alter egos, Wanda McCaddon, reads the novel. She reads clearly and smoothly, with a pleasant nasal quality, and supplies plenty of honest emotion in this novel of Victorian sentiment and enthusiasms. Her characters (of both genders and many social classes) sound natural and are easily distinguished one from another, and she is able to provide authentic accents for all of them, including a slightly Spanish-tinged lisp for Maribel's public persona.  

A somewhat familiar piece of flute music that sounds like an actual musical work rather than just a little tune for intro purposes plays at the beginning and end of the novel. And yes, Dreamscape, I appreciate the music, but this audiobook's cover is way too generic. The original cover shows Maribel smoking in a highly stylized way, was that too dangerous? (I'm really never going to not be a children's librarian.)

I had this audiobook checked out for a long time before listening to it, and when I finally got it into my ears it was not the novel I'd expected. A few years ago, I'd read and enjoyed Clark's first novel, The Great Stink; as you know I enjoy certain compulsions, one of which is to read an author's books in publication order (not just series' books, although I'm rigid in this regard). In this case, I thought I was listening to an earlier (although, true confession time, not her very next book) Clark novel, one that takes place in 18th century Louisiana. It's funny how things go screwy in your mind when something is not what it's "supposed" to be. There were a few tracks of listening before I admitted my confusion and went to the catalog to find out that I was really more than 150 years into the future and in another country. Still, as a lover of historical fiction, I'll probably get to Savage Lands eventually. I wonder if it, too, is based on the life of a real person?

[This portrait of the "Chilean" beauty, Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (no hyphen, please!), was taken by Frederick Hollyer and resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections in London. Do you suppose that fur hat came from Wild Bill Cody?]

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark
Narrated by Wanda McCaddon
Dreamscape, 2012. 15:02

Friday, September 5, 2014

Gay-girl gay

I rose in the middle of the night to catch a plane at 5:40 a.m. to come visit my mom in Iowa City, Iowa -- so 11 hours later I am completely exhausted -- but determined to use all my free time over the next five days (when I'm not helping her unpack in her new apartment) to at least throw away one part of the crappy notes I've been scribbling down about the audiobooks I listened to this summer.

Which brings me to e.E. Charlton-Trujillo's Fat Angie, part of my (why-do-I-set-these-ridiculous) goals to read all of the 2014 ALA award winners since I did such a lousy job of reading books for youth last year. (I'm tantalizingly close to completion.) This one was one of two Stonewall winners of the Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children's and Young Adult Literature Award. Since I have a young friend currently struggling with gender identity at the moment, I'm reading these books with interest.

Fat Angie is fat. She also wears (every single day) a too-tight bright-yellow tee shirt proclaiming membership on the girls' basketball team that belonged to her sister. Fat Angie is the only person who believes that her sister -- last reported captured in Afghanistan -- is still alive, and thinks if she keeps wearing the shirt (without benefit of laundry), she'll somehow keep her sister alive and her fracturing family together. Do I need to say, Fat Angie is relentlessly bullied, particularly since she publicly attempted suicide in front of a pep rally, shouting "We're all killers!" Then KC Romance blows into school.

KC doesn't care what others think and she takes a shine to Fat Angie. And as an intrigued Fat Angie slowly lets KC in on her darkest secrets, Angie might be able to begin coping with her losses. Fat Angie makes the momentous decision to try out for the girls' basketball team; despite her obvious lack of athletic ability, Fat Angie has a mean jump shot.

But just as Fat Angie thinks she might be falling in love, it turns out KC Romance has some secrets of her own.

There's nothing really new here, including the gay angle. At times it feels overloaded: weight issues, cutting, and unprofessional therapists added to the aforementioned bullying, dysfunctional families (skedaddling dad, fat-obsessed mother and drug-dealing adoptive brother) and lesbians. But for young readers who enjoy this type of story, Fat Angie does experience triumph, love and ultimately grief in a teen "problem" novel resolution way. I particularly didn't like the continual reference to Fat Angie only by her name, although this might be a drawback of listening. Eventually, the pronoun 'she' does show up (and I no longer remember the circumstances), but at that point it would seem to filled with some meaning, but there was no meaning that I could discern.

The book is read by Angela Dawe, who reads the book in an declamatory and emphatic manner which I'm going to guess is her way of providing the aural equivalent of Charlton-Trujillo's distancing technique that is the result of the (over) use of Fat Angie's (and other characters) proper names. As I said above, the constant repetition of Fat Angie grew tiresome. The whole package  makes this book kind of exhausting to listen to. On the other hand, I'm not sure I could have stuck with it in print.

Dawe does do a pretty good job with the novel's character voices. The boys sound uniformly realistic, and KC's voice sounds sultry and seductive (not in a pervy way). Angie's therapist's notes are read occasionally in a condescending fashion that is actually pretty funny. So, it's kind of a mixed-bag audiobook-wise.

Any author with an obviously not-born-with-it name will often set me off as well, but I enjoyed Charlton-Trujillo's explanation that she chose to honor two favorite writers: e.e. cummings and S.E. Hinton (although unlike The Outsiders, there's no doubt in my mind that Fat Angie was written by a woman). That's compelling enough that I guess I don't really need to know what those 'e's actually stand for. Charlton-Trujillo is also involved with television, but when I try to reach the website that features those activities, I get this message: "You have tried to access a web page which is in violation of your internet usage policy. Category: Malicious Websites." I didn't know I had an internet usage policy. Do you think it's because I'm on the network for the old folks' home? Curious.

[Fat Angie's sister's lucky tee shirt proclaims her a member of her school's Hornet's Nest. This enormous hornet's nest resides in the Bee Museum in Nakagawa, Japan. The photograph was taken by Mukasora and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
Narrated by Angela Dawe
Candlewick on Brilliance Audio, 2013 [although the end credits indicate that the "performance copyright" is 2012] . 6:27

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tucked away

Oh boy, two in one weekend! I hesitate to add this entry as I don't want this entirely unmemorable (I'm having trouble dredging up details from a listen of two months ago) book to be sitting at the top of the blog for what experience tells me may be awhile. Nevertheless, I'm seeking sanctuary from my home where the front yard is being loudly excavated this morning and there are a limited number of things one can do from a coffee shop. I briefly thought about going backwards (starting with Doc, finished last night), but my cooler (less flexible) head prevailed.

So, the 22nd in Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford series (the internet tells me that Reg is 50 years old this year ... that's actual years, not fictional ones), The Monster in the Box. Rendell (emphasis on the second syllable) writes a pretty good detective novel, but Wexford has never been one of the ones that I've followed eagerly, devouring the newest one shortly after its appearance. Instead, I've picked them up in a desultory (albeit in-order) way. The Monster in the Box is decidedly average Wexford.

It follows a somewhat convoluted plot involving a long-time nemesis named Eric Targo. Targo is an animal-loving serial killer who seems most interested in killing those that will bring him in contact with Wexford, taunting the inspector with Wexford's inability to connect him to the crimes. This happened on several occasions when Wexford was an inexperienced copper, extending to some stalkerish behavior, and then stopped. But now that Wexford's career is winding down, Targo has reappeared -- and seems to be engaging in some Strangers-on-a-Train-type (without the "prearrangement") murders -- and Wexford decides it's time to bring his second-in-command, Mike Burden, in on the hunt as a young Muslim woman living next door to Targo has disappeared. For 40 years, Wexford had put his concerns about Targo away in a box, but now it's time to open it back up.

Most interesting, when Wexford flashes back to his younger days, he revisits the courtship of his wife Dora (always a pleasure when you've met your characters comfortably settled into their marriage). But when you toss in the lion, pontification on political correctness, and a somewhat condescending explanation of Muslim mores; well it was really just a big yawn with a honkingly obvious metaphor. Wexford is not even given the satisfaction of running Targo in for his crimes.

But maybe it was a yawn because of the absolutely lifeless narration. The book is read by Nicolas Coster, who his evidently best known as a soap star.  Considering I've never heard of the publisher, Phoenix Audio, maybe they think he's good at this. (I reviewed the 16 holdings from this publisher at my library, and the narrators -- largely of the "celebrity" variety -- range from the excellent Peter Coyote to ... ahem, Shadoe Stevens. Oy!)

Anyway, Coster reads the novel with a husky whispering style, that lacks resonance and quickly begins to sound strained. He gets juicy quickly and his breathing is audible. Every sentence seems delivered with the exact same rhythm, mostly on the deliberate side. In dialogue, everyone (men and women) sounds a little effeminate, and he makes no effort to distinguish characters, or character voices from the narration. There's no cultural distinctions with the Muslim family and Coster can't even be bothered to pronounce this family's name, Rahman, as anything other than the ordinary rah-man (any other narrator I've listened to would give that first syllable that Arabic 'ch').

I've always felt a bit schizophrenic about Rendell; I simply don't read her stand-alone psychological suspense books, they scare the crap out of me. I do enjoy her pseudonymous writing as Barbara Vine, which take the "backwards" approach -- i.e., here's the bad thing that happened and now we'll go back in time to figure out why. The Monster in the Box seems to be neither of these, nor is it a conventional puzzle piece; it's almost like a character study. Not exactly what I look for in detective fiction.  Still, Rendell's usually reliable (and still writing at 84!), and her output is of the volume of her near-contemporary Anne Perry but with much more variety, so I'll keep up with her. Anyone can have a bad day.

[Eric Targo had a distinctive purple birthmark, called a naevus in this novel, spread across his face and neck. This is a Leucoraja naevus, or cuckoo ray, residing in the waters surrounding the United Kingdom. The photo was taken by Nikki Mahadevan as part of the Geograph Project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Monster in the Box (Inspector Wexford, Book 22) by Ruth Rendell
Narrated by Nicolas Coster
Phoenix Audio,  2009. 9:36

Monday, September 1, 2014

The two-month mark

Hello stranger ... sorry about the long absence. No excuse really, beyond sheer laziness. I'm so far behind that I don't actually know how many books I owe you, so I'm going to temporarily toss out rule number 1 which is to not skip ahead. Of all the books I've listened to in the past two months, one was a gift from a publisher through the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program and I need to pay my debts to others before working on my own. So, thanks Blackstone Audio for the terrific listen that is Lily King's Euphoria.

It's the 1930s, somewhere in the Melanesian island of New Guinea, and English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has just tried to commit suicide by wading into the river with his pockets full of rocks. The gentle Kiona tribesmen he has been studying rescue him, but he decides to take a little Christmastime R&R in a nearby white settlement. There he meets two other anthropologists who have recently fled a violent, possibly infanticidal/possibly cannibalist tribe, American Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen. Stone has recently published a groundbreaking work of research on tribes in the Solomon Islands and has achieved rock-star fame (much to the disgruntlement of Fen), and Bankson quickly finds himself falling under her charismatic spell.

Bankson helps the pair find a new tribe to study -- the matriarchal Tam -- one that is relatively near to his own and then tries to avoid visiting them too often. He does of course, and during one fevered evening the three of them devise what became the standard (Bankson tells us) of the study of human personality regardless of origins, The Grid (which I believe is a real thing, but I don't know the name of it). But there are cracks in the Stone/Fenwick marriage -- over many things: her fame, their inability to conceive a child, and strongly differing opinions about field work. When Fen takes an ill-advised return trip to their original tribe to "obtain" a valuable artifact, Bankson -- with all his neediness and admiration -- becomes Nell's lover. And that is, of course, the beginning of the end.

As others have mentioned in this book's many (positive) reviews, King story was inspired by the moment in Margaret Mead's life when she and her second husband, Reo Fortune, met the man who would become her third, Gregory Bateson while all three were deep in the New Guinea jungle. And, while the love triangle part is clearly true, King sent her story in a different direction.

A direction I was completely in tune with the entire time I listened to this brief novel. There was nothing I didn't like about this book. King's characters come to vivid life as they bicker, sweat, observe and engage with the tribal peoples with whom they are living, make love, and ultimately look back with loss and regret. The setting is alive with "mosquito rooms" in the anthropologists' houses, a wide variety of insect life and tropical diseases, the cacophony of a tribe welcoming back a long-lost member, the muddy, muggy river, and the point where the anthropologist achieves euphoria -- at two months ... when you've been accepted into the tribes' rhythms of life without losing your observational perspective.

Andrew Bankson tells us most of this story, from late in his life after he attended the 1971 opening of the Hall of Pacific Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History. It is interspersed with excerpts from the diary Nell keeps while in New Guinea, a diary that was handed to him by Nell's mentor following a speech he gave a few years earlier.

There are two wonderful narrators telling the story: the reliable Simon Vance and the new-to-me-but-equally-marvelous Xe Sands (pronounced EX-ee). They are really quite perfect. Vance brings his gravitas tinged with that audible emotion that he does so well to the suicidally lonely Bankson. You can hear the excitement and passion that develops in Vance's voice once he meets and falls in love with Nell. Sands reads Nell's diary entries with her pleasant husky, slightly nasal voice that sounds (in a good way) so tired, as if she's barely holding it together. When Nell writes about a breakthrough or a good session with the women or children, Sands' voice becomes livelier; we know what Nell lives for.

Both narrators do a fine job "reading" each other as well as the boorish Australian Fen, and the accents of the tribal peoples are distinct without being caricatures of indigenous speakers. Their pacing is impeccable, with natural pauses and variations for dialogue and descriptions.

As often happens, an encounter with a great story leads to thinking about a variety of things, i.e., what do I know about Margaret Mead? When I visited New York as a college student I stayed with a friend with an apartment nearby the Museum. This friend told me that Mead's office was in the building's turret on the corner of 79th and Columbus (?) and she is forever there burning the midnight oil in my imagination.

[This photo of Fortune, Mead and Bateson is from 1933 and was retrieved from the Library of Congress.]

Euphoria by Lily King
Narrated by Xe Sands and Simon Vance
Blackstone Audio, 2014. 6:53

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I need (to read) diverse books

I had just finished listening to Darius and Twig, the umpteenth book written by the prolific Walter Dean Myers, when I learned of his death. I felt somewhat conflicted as I've never much liked his books (and I've read enough of them to pass legitimate judgment), but I mourned the loss of someone who loved books and the power of books to change lives. He had very recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times that spurred an internet movement that hopefully will bring about the publication of more books about our country's children of color. (I'm cynical ... and therefore not expecting much.)

Darius and Twig is classic Myers -- a brief novel set in Harlem, featuring teenaged boys on the cusp of something. Darius is a budding writer, working on a short story that he hopes will get published in a prestigious undergraduate journal, improving his chances of getting into college. Twig is a talented runner, who might be able to get an athletic scholarship if he can just put off his uncle's insistence that he go to work in the family bodega. Both boys recognize that they need to get away from Harlem -- if only for a little while -- to get away from its pressures of poverty and its companion ... crime.

The story has a little forward movement, and there is a sort of climax when the boys make the choice to tell the police what they know about a shooting, but like most of Myers' work, it's really a study of character and setting. I read or listen to his books with the expectation of closure and there never really is. I go with the book, waiting ... and invariably feel disappointed with the way they just seem to peter out. In this way, Myers' novels resemble life, but the day-to-day doesn't often make a great story.

A new-to-me narrator, Brandon Gill, reads the novel. It's narrated in Darius' voice and Gill reads the story with a little too much actorly precision for a 16-year-old kid from the 'hood. But for the other teenaged characters, Gill demonstrates a nice feel for their hiphoppy rhythms and mouthy delivery. There are also two adult neighborhood "characters" who hang out at the local barbershop craggily dispensing advice and Gill gives each of them appropriate voices, full of humor and gruff wisdom. There are a few opportunities for accented English -- Spanish, Jamaican -- that Gill produces with skill.

Darius occasionally imagines himself inside the body of a peregrine falcon, named Fury, who enables him to view his broken world from a soaring and powerful distance. When these passages come, Gill reads with some supernatural gravitas that helps distinguish them from his regular narration. Ultimately, this narration felt like a mixed bag -- a bunch of bright spots countered by the oddly formal narrative voice in some not-very-interesting material.

I was glad to learn that Darius ended up at Amherst College, but soon he (and narrator Gill) will learn how to pronounce it correctly. (The 'h' is silent.)

Back to the diverse books situation. I think it might cut both ways. For my own reading pleasure (adult), I don't seek out books with characters of color (very often), but I think it's because I'm generally not interested in the plots and characters ... in the plots and characters I'm aware of ("urban" romance and a lot of violence). There are mysteries, historical fiction and less gritty contemporary fiction to read, and there's no doubt how much I enjoy listening to a narrator of color interpret a story. It's clear that Dion Graham helps me quite a lot in this area, but it might be time to branch out.

There must be an award to guide me: I read Darius and Twig because it was a 2014 award winner -- a Coretta Scott King Honor. Hello, librarians (is this an every-other-year-award?)!

[This quite magnificent photograph of a peregrine falcon was taken in Morro Bay, California by Kevin Cole and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Darius and Twig by Walter Dean Myers
Narrated by Brandon Gill
Recorded Books, 2013.  4:08

Monday, July 21, 2014

The winter of our discontent

My 87-year-old mother came to visit me last month and we had a five-hour drive down to Ashland, Oregon in order to see a few plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Among these was Shakespeare's Richard III, so I thought that a good road-trip audiobook would be Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. It was a book we've both read (a long time ago), but the "revisionist" history would be fun to revisit.

When I read this book as a teenager (young adult?), I was deep into Shakespeare and so its revelations about the Tudor Mythology were fascinating to me. Now that the poor man's bones have been dug up, the story presented in Tey's novel is kind of old news, but there's still something fun about the conceit she creates that makes it ... well, somewhat timeless. Also timeless: the argument about where he should be reburied (this "row" [as described by the BBC] appears to be over).

But I digress. Tey's novel features her detective, Alan Grant, flat on his back in a hospital bed recuperating from a nasty fall that occurred while he was pursuing a criminal. (His lengthy hospital stay truly dates this 1951 book, but I'm digressing again ....) Bored with the book options before him, his actress friend Marta Hallard suggests that he do a little armchair detecting of an historical mystery and brings him some portraits to get him started. Grant is immediately intrigued by Richard III's face (the portrait he sees is the one on the book cover, residing in the National Portrait Gallery) -- as it seems to him not that of a cold-blooded murderer (of the young Princes in the Tower [scroll down to "The yong kyng and his brother murthered"]), but of a man in some physical and psychic pain).

Aided by an enthusiastic American, Brent Carradine, who does the legwork, Grant examines the historical record and concludes that it was all a load of Tudor hooey -- designed to make Shakespeare's patron, the granddaughter of the deposer (murderer?) of Richard, the legitimate monarch and savior of England.

At the conclusion of the novel, Carradine discovers that all his work had been done by others and that the Tudor Myth had already been exposed, but never underestimate the ability of a work of fiction to bring the work of nonfiction researchers to the fore.

I want to preface my remarks about the audiobook with a nod to the conditions under which we were listening to this book, because we didn't find it a very good audiobook. Sir Derek Jacobi has few flaws as an actor, but these are all writ large when you can only hear him. (I'm pleased to see that I've been consistent about this narrator. I didn't like it the last time I listened to him either.) He uses volume to depict emotion as well as to portray Brent Carradine's Americanness. He's fairly sibilant and more than fairly juicy (lots and lots of saliva sloshing around!). We had the volume cranked up pretty high and occasionally it was just painful to listen to.

On the other hand, when there was no cause for volume and the narrator had recently swallowed, it's quite lovely listening to Sir Derek read to you. The resonance and clipped speech have a familiarity that is comforting. It's also interesting that his narrator voice is different enough so that there are no flashbacks to I, Claudius or Last Tango in Halifax. And, of course, being a well-trained English actor, he does a fine job with the character's various classes and origins, providing consistent English accents that certainly sound authentic.

However, as the driver, I also found it difficult to concentrate on this talky book. Clues are discovered and chewed over. A new direction is suggested. Carradine comes back with more information and they talk about it again. I admit I lost track of what factoid (what semi-obscure text) came up when and why it was important. It's not likely that -- if pressed -- I could come up with a single example of what Grant and Carradine discovered.

I was disturbed at the opening of the audiobook, when the anonymous male voice announcing the title could not even be bothered to give the correct full title (The was not there)!

Mom and I attended a "Preface" down at OSF for Richard III, which helped to keep all the chronology and relationships straight. The presenter also touched on the Tudor Mythology, but Mom and I felt we were already up on that!

[It was hard to pick just one of the photographs from the dig that unearthed the King, so be sure to check them all out here. This is King Richard's skeleton in situ, found on August 25, 2012. The photograph is from the University of Leicester.]

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Narrated by Derek Jacobi
BBC Audiobooks America (Chivers Audio), 1987. 5:19