Monday, April 21, 2014

The burn box

I don't think I'd ever heard of John le Carré until I watched Sir Alec Guinness play his shlubby spy, George Smiley, on public television back in the 1980s. I've probably watched that thing four or five times; what it lacks in suspense on subsequent viewings is made up for by following the deceptive mole. I enjoyed this activity as well with the more recent film, but a two-hour movie is just not the same as the deliciously drawn-out seven episodes of the television series. I developed a serious crush on Smiley's aide de guerre, Peter Guillam, in the form of Michael Jayston (much as I lurve Benedict Cumberbatch), so when Jayston began showing up as narrator for various le Carré novels, I knew one of them had to go into the ears. I opted for A Perfect Spy, probably because I know I watched the television series back in the day as well but had never bothered to read the book. (The series is currently cued up for viewing in the DVD player now that I've finished the book.)

Magnus Pym is the perfect spy. We first meet him in the dead of night, knocking on the door of a dilapidated rooming house in a small English coastal town. The landlady recognizes him, but as he holes up in the room always set aside for him, it's clear this is not his usual visit. Magnus' father, the disreputable con man Rick Pym, has recently died and -- instead of returning to his wife and his post with "the Firm" in 1982 Vienna following the funeral -- Magnus has created an elaborate false trail to arrive at Miss Dubber's. He pulls out a typewriter and begins an impassioned letter to his young son, Tom, his bildungsroman: The story of Rick Pym and his adoring son Magnus, and of another father figure, the Czech spy Axel, also known as Poppy.

Magnus' narrative alternates with the story of what his disappearance has left behind: the frantic search of his wife, Mary, and his handler, Jack Brotherhood, for the why and where.

This is great stuff -- a deeply personal story of dysfunctional family relationships expertly tied to Cold War spycraft. Magnus slowly spins out the narrative of how he came to betray his country (or does he?), yet -- raised by a professional liar, and one himself -- how can we believe anything he says? Do his handlers (on both sides) really have his interests in mind as they search for him? Where do our sympathies lie? Are we being conned? I love how this book never gives up its secrets, it just builds and builds to an ending that surprises and doesn't surprise at the same time. By the end, do we know Magnus Pym? I'm not sure we do. And that's alright.

Jayston is excellent. He keeps the lengthy novel moving with a pacing that never flags, while still pausing to delineate character or irony (there's a lot of both in Magnus' opus [tee hee!]). His speaking voice is pleasantly deep. The many characters all sound like human beings, and he does a very good job with the women, who sound female but not femmy. There's a scene where the Firm's higher-ups are meeting with their American "cousins" about the Pym problem, which Jayston accomplishes with skill -- a bunch of well-established Englishmen and Americans, each of whom has a distinct voice. He does the same with Rick's little pack of working-class hangers-on and "cheap" (and occasionally not so cheap) women. A few non-English accents (some Swiss and some Czechs) comes off as authentic and consistent.

It is with the Pyms -- Rick and Magnus -- that Jayston shines. Rick's fast-talking, confident demeanor is clear in his voice; even though you know he's on the make, it's easy to be taken in by his smooth delivery. Magnus is even better: Here's a chameleon, who adapts himself to everyone he meets, conforming to what they think he should be. Like Rick, everyone thinks they know him, but no one actually does. Even when he's writing Pym's story -- which he does in the third person with occasional bursts of raw emotion when he switches to first -- there's always a hint of the con. You never forget you're listening to the story of a man who -- even though he's telling us everything -- finds it impossible to lose the mask, the ironic dispassion, and the sense that he's smarter than everyone around him. In other words, a perfect spy.

It might be fun to listen to Jayston read in another genre; it looks like he specializes in P.D. James but not on our side of the pond. My library owns something called Midshipman Bolitho, the first of a series in the Hornblower/Aubrey-Maturin vein [yawn]. Maybe it will just have to be another le Carré. Even though many reviews say A Perfect Spy was his best work (and his most autobiographical since his father was evidently very Rick Pym-like), it's not like he's a piker in the novel department.

["Underneath the Arches" is an old tune that serves as Rick's theme song. This photograph, taken as part of the Geograph Project, is of the railroad bridge arches on Duke Street in Leeds, photographed by Betty Longbottom, and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
Narrated by Michael Jayston
Penguin Audio, 2012.  20:53

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Phone home

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen (which probably won't be as funny if I ever watch it again) was The Tall Guy, with Jeff Goldblum playing an actor cast in the title role of a musical version of The Elephant Man. I kept thinking of this movie while listening to Broadway dancer/author Tim Federle's Better Nate Than Ever. The hero of this novel, 13-year-old Nate Foster, takes a bus trip (without his parents' knowledge) from Jankberg, Pennsylvania to the Great White Way in order to audition for a musical version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. This book did not make me laugh so hard I cried.

Nate's journey, planned with all the confidence that a 13-year-old can bring to such an adventure (see an earlier version of this), goes awry from the beginning ... but he makes it to the audition, gets a chance to show his chops, meets a long-estranged aunt (who also had Broadway dreams, but now waits tables at an oyster bar), and ... well, finds out stuff about himself. He's truly an innocent abroad; in addition to walking wide-eyed into all of New York's dangers, he doesn't know the audition game, unlike all of the professional children he encounters. For me, some of these situations were mildly amusing, but mostly I did a lot of cringing. It is also way too long -- not once, but twice, Nate is headed out of town thinking he has failed when he gets a last-minute message to call back. For starstruck tweens, though, this book will be a hit (if they're OK with the gay-positive message).

Nate is self-deprecating, wise-cracking, and funny-sad; he's very short and ... what did that chubby-boy-size used to be called? ... Husky (a box of donuts and pizza are his food supply while in Manhattan). His family doesn't really get him -- preferring instead his athletic older brother -- and he's bullied at school. He's got one friend, next-door neighbor Libby -- who shares his love of drama, theatrical and otherwise. Nate tells us that he's not gay, he's a "freshman at the college of sexuality and am undecided in my major," which is actually pretty refreshing. This book walks an odd line: it's funny and engaging (at least for this former New Yorker), but it's also really, really message-y. Let the angel choir begin: Be true to yourself and you can achieve your dreams.

Federle reads his novel, and he was rewarded by the Odyssey Committee for his work. (The Stonewall Children's Literature Award committee also gave this an honor this year.) Even though he's originally from California, Federle narrates the book with a nice western Pennsylvania broadness. He doesn't attempt to recreate a 13-year-old's voice, which means he sounds a little adult. And he sounds gay to me, which I'm trying to delineate for you what that means in a speaking voice: overly precise and kind of tsk-tsk-y. (This is not helpful, I realize, but I believe I know gay when I hear it.)  Federle doesn't really try to create voices for the other characters; he reads females with a slightly higher register and goes somewhat wrong when he tries to do an English accent for one of the audition directors. Following dialogue wasn't very difficult because of how the story was written, although I confess that the multitude of adults that led the audition (director, musical director, choreographer, etc.) all blended together.

As with many other awards, the Monday-morning quarterbacking of what-were-they-thinking for the ALA YMAs isn't really fair, but it is fun. It's not fair, because I haven't listened to all the audiobooks that the Odyssey Committee listened to so I don't know the universe from which they selected Better Nate Than Ever. Bearing this in mind, I'm not seeing/hearing what was stellar about this narration. Yes, Federle reads with that intimacy that only authors have, but this is not a unique or difficult piece of literature -- many experienced narrators would have been able to sound more youthful and more skillfully explore the story's many characters, and quite possibly have moved the story on with a little more sprightly pacing. The most obvious Odyssey book to connect to here is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and Nate/Federle is simply not in that league.

(For a much better second opinion on an award-winning book, read Patrick Ness' evisceration of a National Book Award finalist, Far Far Away, in his essay for the Battle of the Kids' Books.)

Possibly the best part of this book for me was very Broadway-insider. Libby and Nate swear by invoking famous Broadway flops: "Moose Murders it all to tarnation!", "Frickin' Carrie," "Holy Dance of the Vampires!" There wasn't one time that this wasn't funny, but are those drama-loving tweens going to get it?

Finally, the cover. While Nate tells you that he is short for his age (4'8"), the boy on the cover looks really young. Young enough that pre-tweens and their parents might think this is a good book for them. But Nate doesn't shy away from talking about the realities of middle school, the bullying he's experienced, "faggot" is said several times, and the bodily mysteries of the adolescent boy are addressed. Commonsense Media says 10, one of its kid reviewers says eight (but parents, s/he says, read it first), and a teen at the site says 11. And that pretty much sums up the difficulties of rating anything.

[The E.T.-like photograph was taken at a Spanish mountain bike competition by José Antonio Gil Martínez. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
Narrated by the author
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 5:54

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gentle air

Memoirs, books related to Islam, and books for kids. I feel like I've been reading a lot of "assignments" lately. (Mostly they are -- of course -- assignments of my own making, but I'm very much feeling like my reading list is a bunch of "have-tos.") Not all of these are a chore, the book I'm discussing here was quite enjoyable as was the one I just finished for my book group: Molly Gloss' The Jump-off Creek.

On to the book in hand: Paperboy by Vince Vawter. A Newbery Honor winner this year, it's from the "assigned" list. This tender little novel is the story of an 11-year-old boy telling what happened during an eventful month in the summer of 1959 when he took over the paper route of his best friend. The boy withholds his name for most of the story so I'll call him what the family's black maid, Mam, does: Little Man. Little Man doesn't say his name because he's got a serious stutter and avoids speaking as often as he possibly can. He prefers writing, and he is telling us this story by typing it out.

Little Man's got a speech therapist, who is teaching him the trick of "gentle air," a conscious intake of breath then exhaling it as he says the words that trouble him.  He's feeling a little confident -- as well as in debt to his friend -- that he agrees to sub on the paper route. He's really only worried about Fridays -- the day he has to knock on the door of his customers and collect what they owe him.

Nothing much happens, and yet a whole lot does. This is one of those books where the protagonist is at a crossroads, participating in small events that set him out on the road to being a little more grown up. Little Man makes some acquaintances on his route, notably a beautiful young (and occasionally) drunk housewife and a retired merchant mariner with a houseful of books. Each reaches out to the boy without regard to how he speaks and he is quickly enchanted by both. Against the advice of Mam, he pays a local junkman, Ara T, to sharpen his jackknife -- the better to cut the cord holding his newspapers together. But when he tries to get the knife back, things take a disturbing turn. And finally, snooping in his mother's closet, he comes across a piece of paper that tells him something he didn't know about his family.

The narrative is as slow as a sensible bike rider conserving his energy during the heat of a Memphis summer, as gentle as the air that Little Man pushes out, and occasionally packs a punch like one of Little Man's hard pitches. It also has an intimate feel that makes you certain that at least some of the story is autobiographical. Not every writer can make such ordinary events worth listening to.

I enjoyed this, while wondering at Little Man's affinity for adults. There are no other children in this book, with the exception of his best friend who is mentioned frequently but only appears at the end, and another boy that Little Man wonders about but meets only after the events of the summer, after he's begun to see the world in a more nuanced way. I see how Little Man would be fairly solitary to avoid the bullying of his peers, but surely he knows more than one kid who won't tease him? The adults have adult problems (alcoholism, homelessness) that are seen authentically through a child's eyes and thank goodness an adult solves his problem with Ara T. And in another realistic way, the questions Little Man has about that piece of paper he finds are never resolved.

Race, and race relations, are a sidebar in Paperboy, only a few mentions of where Mam can sit on the bus. Little Man has a more intimate relationship with Mam than he appears to have with his mother, but there's no commentary on this. Mam takes him briefly into one of Memphis' black neighborhoods, which Little Man only observes as poor, not that he's the only white person. Again, a sign to me of the autobiographical nature of the events he's recording. It's kind of refreshing, actually, to have a story take place in the civil-rights-era South that doesn't mention civil rights. On the other hand, it's just another white kid's story.

A favorite narrator, Lincoln Hoppe, reads the book. He reads with a slight drawl and quite deliberately, accurately mirroring Little Man's hesitant speech ... even when he's writing, not speaking. When he does speak Little Man's dialogue, the gentle air intakes are audible and troublesome words are stammered, but with restraint. As Little Man himself says, "it's not so much like fat pigs in cartoons." He provides distinct characterizations for the novel's other characters and these work out pretty well. He doesn't get too femmy or slurry for the alcoholic housewife; while Mr. Spiro, the mariner, tends to speak with a little too much intensity, like everything he is saying is so important.

An afterword (oddly called "a comment on the text") -- about stuttering -- is read by the author, and you can hear the hesitations clearly. Even though he's long past the teasing age, was it a huge deal for him to make a permanent recording for many to hear? It seems likely he thought it was important to share his own experiences with young -- possibly stuttering -- readers as he provides, a little awkwardly, some web addresses for further information. It's always a little trying, listening to someone read http ... etc.; imagine how trying this would be for someone with a speech impediment.

[A famous stutterer, this portrait of King George VI by Sir Gerald Kelly hangs in the Royal Collection. This image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Paperboy by Vince Vawter
Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe
Listening Library, 2013.  6:10

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hate is easy

Herewith my second memoir in two months. Like the first, I read it for work.  I haven't changed my mind about them. It's a beautiful Sunday morning, so I'm trying to get my "chores" done before play, so I'm planning on keeping this brief. (However, I often find that brief occasionally will go on [and on]).  I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity is the story of Izzeldin Abuelaish. The author was born in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1955; he grew up, was educated (before he headed abroad for medical school; it was sheer grit that got him there) and was raising his own family in Gaza when he was struck by terrible tragedy: In January 2009, his house in Gaza was shelled by Israeli artillery and three of his eight children -- daughters Bessan, Mayar and Aya -- were killed. A niece was also killed and another daughter was so seriously injured that she was airlifted to an Israeli hospital. Their deaths followed, by just a few months, the sudden illness and death of his wife from leukemia.

Before this ghastly event, Abeulaish had a successful medical career affiliated with a hospital in Israel and had advocated publicly about the importance of personal connections in promoting peace. He believed -- believes -- that generalizing all Israelis as the enemy (and vice versa) is antithetical to peace, but that knowing and understanding individuals -- as he has done -- will inevitably bring hostilities to an end. He managed to sustain his faith in humanity as he endured weekly humiliations every time he crossed the border from Gaza to Israel and while he attempted a ridiculously circuitous route home from abroad upon learning of his wife's condition. I believe someone from the Christian tradition might call him "saintly." I don't know the Jewish or Muslim equivalent.  After the deaths of his children, Izzeldin moved his family to Toronto where he practices and teaches medicine, and where he started a foundation in honor of his daughters, Daughters for Life.

The three girls are pictured on the cover of the book, in a photograph taken shortly before their deaths, described in the memoir's opening chapter. On this day, a few months after his wife died, Abuelaish took his children to the beach in Gaza and they all wrote their names in the sand. Poignant, and chilling in light of the following tragedy, and the best part of the whole book.

While I acknowledge the depth of this tragedy and applaud Abuelaish's continuing commitment to peace, his story didn't move me much. And I blame the false humility of the memoir format ... I have trouble actually seeing the humanity of the memoirist as s/he tells their story.  There's a reason -- usually extraordinary or interesting accomplishments -- a person writes a memoir, but there seems to be such a prohibition on extolling these accomplishments that it ends up seeming very inauthentic to this reader.

Also, I tend to focus on what Abuelaish isn't telling me -- why did he practice medicine in Israel (goodness knows there is need for his skills in Gaza), what did his friends and neighbors think of his working with the "enemy," why did he stay so long in Gaza when he had many offers to work elsewhere? In my cynical view, he seemed like someone who has turned to his oppressor for validation (I think there's a term for this), yet I got no sense of any conflict over this.

Patrick Lawlor reads the memoir in a straightforward nonfiction way -- with steady pacing and a neutral affect with a few emotional reactions (notably as he recreates Abuelaish's telephone call to a journalist friend in Israeli following the shelling of his house). He has a slightly hoarse delivery that gets a bit wearing. There's a lengthy introduction from an Israeli doctor colleague and this sounds exactly like Abuelaish's narrative. On the whole, pretty darn dull. For a much more compelling version of the events (but, of course, not one from Abuelaish's perspective), watch this video from Journeyman Pictures.

So, predisposed to not like coupled with an ordinary narration. It felt like work, and was -- for a book discussion group I've been hosting all year. The lecture and discussion that the group had about I Shall Not Hate was informative, very lively, and filled with strong opinions -- delivered occasionally by those who seemed to not have taken the message of the book to heart!

[A house in the Jabalia refugee camp (not Abuelaish's) destroyed at an unknown date. The date given is long after the events of the "Gaza War." It was taken by diario photográphico 'desde Palestina' and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity by Izzeldin Abuelaish
Narrated by Patrick Lawlor
Tantor Media, 2011.  8:14

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Terrible things can happen to you

I didn't know that Kate DiCamillo's Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures had more than spot illustrations until after I finished listening to it, so I'll say up front that I never felt I was missing anything while listening. Afterwards, however, I was curious to see how the reading text -- often in a comic-book-ish format -- was altered to make the audiobook, i.e., does the narrator read "Flora said" for a speech balloon? Listening to the beginning again while looking at some of K.G. Campbell's illustrations online, it's pretty clear that a significant amount of text was added ("Mrs. Tickham, without looking up: 'Goody'" is likely a panel showing Mrs. T reading with a speech bubble saying "Goody."), but I gotta say, I didn't notice how awkward this was until this listen. But boy, is that awkward.

Flora Belle Buckman, natural-born cynic, has promised that she will read books other than her favorite comic books about The Amazing Incandesto (a crimefighting pillar of light) this summer but she's having trouble living up to the contract that her mother made her sign. She looks up from her illicit reading to see a strange sight: Her neighbor, Mrs Tickham, seems to be vacuuming the yard. Actually, the vacuum seems to be in control. Flora watches as the vacuum slurps up a nearby squirrel and comes to a gurgling halt. They are able to rescue the squirrel from the innards of the vacuum, but quickly realize that this is no ordinary squirrel. Being ingested by a vacuum has endowed the squirrel with superpowers -- including super strength and an ability to leap tall buildings. It can't talk, but it can understand human speech. And, as it later demonstrates, it can write poetry ... using Flora's mother's typewriter.

Flora christens the squirrel Ulysses, after the vacuum cleaner, and then spends the remainder of the short novel trying to protect him from her mother's nefarious plans. Flora's mom -- without knowing that Flora is listening -- has asked Flora's dad (sadly divorced) to stick Ulysses into a pillowcase and smash him with a shovel. All ends well, of course, lessons learned and everyone changed for the better.

This was entirely too twee for me -- maybe it's because I'm not a comic-book lover? Although I have no doubt of its kid-friendliness, everyone was just a tad too quirky. A few examples: Flora's favorite expression: Holy bagumba! The boy who enters the story has declared himself traumatically blinded and insists on going by both first and last name: William Spiver. There's a demon cat stalking her father's apartment building. Flora's mother writes romance novels using a typewriter.

Tweeness aside, DiCamillo writes some funny scenes -- most memorably at the Giant Do-Nut diner and in the disaster scenarios in the back of her Amazing Incandesto comics under the heading: Terrible Things Can Happen to You! Except for the whole superhero squirrel thing, Flora seems like a real person -- comfortably a nerd and coping with her parents' recent divorce in what seemed to me to be an honestly kidlike way. DiCamillo's not afraid to slip in some big words for small readers (malfeasance, positing, or cynic for that matter) and introduces some big ideas from her father's neighbor, a vaguely Eastern European psychologist with a horsehair sofa (Rilke anyone?).

The audiobook is pretty good, considering the limitations of producing one based on an all-but-comic book. Narrator Tara Sands gives a lively and emotive reading, maintaining the novel's frenetic pace with cheerful energy. There are distinct and interesting characters, slightly artificial but not caricatured (not easy, considering the material) and consistent throughout the story. Every once in a while, Ulysses goes into superhero mode, and Sands cranks up the artificiality in her delivery to enhance the cartoony quality of the situation. A martial-like, Superman-ish musical theme plays under these portions of the story. It's fun, but the music peters out in an unresolved way, followed by a significant amount of silence. It's a bit of an odd finish to a promising beginning.

Back, briefly, to the awkwardness mentioned at the beginning. I didn't think twice about the text when I listened to this originally. I didn't think about the illustrations I was missing. But closely listening to what I quoted earlier, coupled with writing it down, makes the audiobook seem slightly Frankenstein-ish ... but after the fact. So, ultimately, I can recommend it. (Good for the family car trip, actually.)

DiCamillo was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I've enjoyed some of her work, but I'm not rabidly enthusiastic, even though I've read pretty much everything she's written. I'm amused to (belatedly) remember that she wrote the book my committee selected for the Odyssey Award. I haven't read enough of last year's children's books to second-guess the committee, but this seems a kind of lightweight selection. It won't be a hard sell to kids, though, and I guess that's what's really important.

Digression: I'm not an early adopter of anything, and I've got what my mother refers to as a Scotch soul (wallet requires crowbar). Having bared my soul, I share my small step into 21st-century technology: today I purchased a used, bilious-green iPod Nano. My trusty Sansa Clip was slowly dying and earlier this week I dropped it (accidentally) into a glass of water. It was time, I thought, to pay the Apple bucks for an iPod, but then spent about 20 fruitless minutes trying to find the visible menu on the iPod Shuffle I purchased the following day. I returned it, asking for the one where you could see what you were listening to. Ah, ma'am (god, I hate it when they call me ma'am), you want the Nano, just $100 more! Well past my price point, I ventured into the cutthroat world of Craigslist.

After a few false starts (no one will hold onto something you have said you would buy if you don't come buy it TODAY!), I now have a slightly dinged up 4th generation model, mine for $20. Believe it or not, I'm having trouble mastering on/off but I don't know if that's me or the aged (three-and-a-half years old) equipment. But considering how embarrassed I was to be seen with the CD player the last few days, I'll work on my "clickwheeling" technique. This has four times more space than my Clip, the audiobooks will be rattling around in there. Another advantage: I can now play Audible books (should I ever wish to -- gasp -- purchase one!)

["Rita jumped up and down. She put her hands to her head. She swatted and clawed trying to dislodge him. The harder she hit him, the more fiercely the squirrel clung." The scene at the Giant Do-Nut was retrieved from Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac.

[The photograph of the iPod 4th generation is from Apple and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
Narrated by Tara Sands
Listening Library, 2013.  4:30