Monday, June 23, 2014


Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon might have gotten on my reading radar without being a Printz Honor because I absolutely loved her I, Coriander of more than a few years ago. I also listened to The Red Necklace but wasn't as enchanted by it (or more accurately not as enchanted by the reader). Maggot Moon is completely different from these books, and for something that clocks in at under four hours, there is a lot going on. I think this is the sign of a very skilled writer.

We don't learn until well into the book that it is 1956. England, called the Motherland, is a totalitarian society that seems heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, or perhaps Nazi Germany (an arm salute is often demanded). Fifteen-year-old Standish Treadwell lives with his grandfather in Zone 7. His parents vanished several years ago for defying the government and now Standish goes to a substandard school where threats and intimidation are on the curriculum. To make matters worse, Standish is dyslexic and can't read or write, not to mention those unmatched eyes. The Motherland does not like "impurities."

One day a boy named Hector moves into the house next door and he and Standish bond over football (soccer). Hector's parents have been exiled to Zone 7 for infractions that Standish doesn't understand but that his savvy and resourceful grandfather does. Something very mysterious is going on on the other side of a high wall that backs onto Standish's house, so when Hector uses the hidden underground tunnel that connects Standish's basement to inside that wall to recover their football, a horrifying series of events is triggered. Not to mention the man who stumbles into the basement missing his tongue. This man looks like the picture of one of the astronauts who have just rocketed into space to make the first moon landing. A moon landing that the Motherland has been trumpeting as a symbol of its supremacy.

Standish is the only person who can tell the truth. But is he brave enough to try?

Standish narrates the novel and it's written in a jumpy and disjointed style that perhaps tries to replicate the world as a dyslexic person would view it (quick changes of time [past and present] and very short chapters). He transposes some letters (Plant Juniper) and adapts words (Croca-Colas). I'm not sure if I could have stuck with it in print, but I was able to (mostly) follow what was going on. It's a powerful book, but it's a definite downer. While Standish takes a stand, and his one act is a meaningful one, I'm not sure anything will change in the Motherland (unlike, say, Katniss Everdeen).

A young narrator (and actor), Robert Madge, reads the novel. The Maggot Moon website linked above has a video of him at work. I think he was just 16 when he recorded the book, and even though he's got a lot of experience as a child actor, he is quite astonishingly good. He has a very pleasant reading voice, youthful but not childish. His pacing is spot on with lots of variation in delivery and tension-filled pauses. There's a lot of appropriate emotion as well -- Standish's loneliness, his fear and how he draws on courage he didn't know he had are all vividly expressed in Madge's narration.

There's nicely evocative, slightly sci-fi-ish music (it kind of echoes that initial whistle of Doctor Who) that opens and closes each disc.

The publishers created an extra-special ebook for Maggot Moon, a "multi-touch iBook," where -- among other things (including audio excerpts) -- you can see what a page might look to a dyslexic.

[Standish compares himself to David (vis a vis Goliath) on several occasions in the text. Here's the most famous (?) statue in the world, residing in the Accademia Gallery. The photo was posted by Tektraktys and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
Narrated by Robert Madge
Candlewick on Brilliance Audio, 2013. 3:40

Monday, June 16, 2014

Filth therapy

This book, Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels, ended up in my ears (after being checked out and residing on the home bookshelf waiting to be listened to for about a year) because a patron recommended it (the book, not the audiobook).  I'd read a Davies book a long, long time ago ... wasn't impressed enough to read another ... but thought it worth trying again because, well, I guess because he's a famous literary figure and I should read something he wrote. My initial impression was correct. I don't need to read him any more. I kind of felt like I needed a bath after reading this.

It's an academic story, which could spell doom before I even crack the spine. (It's also, as I try to gather my thoughts for a synopsis, quite complicated.) A wealthy art collector and benefactor of the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (known as "Spook" by its denizens) has died leaving a complicated will and three executors: Clement Hollier, Urquhart (Urky) McVarish, and Simon Darcourt. There's also a nephew who will inherit whatever the three Spook professors decide isn't suitable for the college. And each professor will be able to select something from the benefactor's collection to own personally. Hollier is handsome but scatterbrained (but has his eye on a manuscript from Rabelais from the estate that could prove academically groundbreaking), McVarish is grasping and nasty, and Darcourt, a priest and medievalist, occupies the sane-ish middle ground. Add a brilliant young graduate student, Maria Theotoky -- who pines for Hollier's attention and is loved (perhaps as a result of her "gypsy" mother's misdirected love potion) by Darcourt. McVarish just makes rude, sexual comments to her.

There's also a defrocked monk utterly down on his luck, but happy to sponge off his former colleagues while he completes his tell-all novel and a scientist studying human excrement to see if it can predict character traits. This latter individual used to be the college's football star and his name is Ozias Froats. (I think this is supposed to be funny.)

Oy! There's a lot of talking about intellectual topics way over my head -- Paracelsus, Rabelais (my only knowledge of this guy comes from The Music Man), those Miltonian rebel angels and John Aubrey's Brief Lives. McVarish is believed to have stolen the manuscript and is killed by another character who then commits suicide. Much is made of Maria's sexy intelligence and her gypsy heritage. It's a complete load of Ozy Froat's poop. It's a book that made me feel like the author's sole purpose was to show how much smarter he is. Arrogant SOB.

The story has an alternating narrative: Maria Theotoky tells the "Rebel Angels" (all those professors panting after her?), and Simon Darcourt the "Brief Lives" (his attempt to create Aubrey-like sketches of his own colleagues). Unfortunately, there is just one narrator and he does those awful femmy, breathy women's voices for half the novel. The book was published in 1981 and the audiobook in 1997 and it seems to me to be one of the last of the "old-fashioned" audiobooks: One guy reading the whole thing in kind of an actorly, resonant, generic English accent. Frederick Davidson (aka David Case) does OK with the Darcourt narrative -- with a sightly nasal, slightly gravelly, slightly patronizing delivery. His characters are only slightly differentiated, so when those academics start talking to each other, it's pretty hard to track who is speaking. I've already dissed his female voices, but the whole gypsy mother character is a bit of an embarrassment (except that Davies' creation of this character is already an embarrassment).

Davidson also doesn't finish pronouncing some of the words, i.e., "avoidan-." And there's all sorts of audible mouth noises and page turnings.  The audiobook just has this last-century feel, when "books on tape" were the stepchildren of literature, and audiobook narrators had to have several personas in order to work in different genres. On the other hand, I'm not sure that a different (and more than one) narrator could redeem this book (for me).

In addition to visiting my 100-year-old godfather last week, I had a mini-reunion with some college friends in a little Canadian town called Niagara-on-the-Lake. Which brings me to college/academic novels. I'd probably enjoy an academic novel that takes place at a women's college in the 1970s, so it's likely not the genre that I don't like, but would prefer to read one that portrays my experiences. How parochial (sigh).

[Davies is thought to have modeled Spook after the University of Toronto's Trinity College, where he taught for many years. The gothic tower symbolizes the campus (and was featured on the cover of the first edition of The Rebel Angels). This photograph was taken by Wachowich and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies
Narrated by Frederick Davidson
Blackstone Audio, 1997.  11:52

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The long way

I'm nearing the end of the current audiobook today and I spent way too much time this morning trying to figure out if I should listen to a short (under eight hours) or a long book next ... the long book theoretically giving me the opportunity to catch up on the posting here, where I am woefully behind. (That being said, I settled on the shorter book. Something to do with another trip out of town. It made sense at the time.) Anyway, soldiering on (this phrase probably comes from the between-the-World-Wars books that are both in my ears and before my eyes right now).

Another 2014 Newbery Honor book, Amy Timberlake's One Came Home also recently won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery. Call me cranky today (and I am), but I was unimpressed with both book and audio. The novel takes place in 1871 in the fictional town of Placid, Wisconsin and begins with the return home of an unrecognizable corpse to Georgie Burkhardt and her mother. Because the body is wearing her older sister Agatha's shimmering blue-green ball gown, it is assumed by all to be Agatha. All except 13-year-old Georgie. Since Georgie's the reason that Agatha left home -- blurting out to Agatha's wealthy fiance that Georgie had seen her kissing someone else -- she takes it upon herself to follow Agatha's trail to find out for certain whose body they've buried.

Agatha was last seen in the company of some "pigeoners," people who follow the migration of passenger pigeons in order to harvest the plentiful meat. An enormous nesting (estimated at over 100,000,000 birds) occurred in south-central Wisconsin (containing fictional Placid) just prior to the beginning of the novel. Georgie has an indelible picture of Agatha twirling outside under a parasol during a part of the flyover as the birds covered the sky. (You wouldn't want to be outside during one of these unless you have a particular affinity for bird poop.)

So Georgie heads off -- accompanied by the boy Agatha was kissing (why?) -- in search of answers. In a cheat, in my opinion, she doesn't really learn what happened to Agatha ... all is revealed in a deus-ex-machina letter delivered after she returns to Placid. Spoiler: And the explanation in the letter beggared belief as well: Would Agatha take off without letting anyone know and then wait MONTHS before contacting her family? Really?

Georgie is a somewhat engaging character, although I found her pugnacious gumption and convenient dead-eye shooting skills to be disingenuous and tiresome. The book takes a long time to get her on that journey, and then it's over pretty quickly. I'm not sure what the passenger pigeons are doing in the story, although the book did send me on a fun bit of curiosity-slaking research about their biology and their extinction (according to Timberlake, there's talk of resurrecting the bird from its DNA). Not content with the pigeons, Timberlake also tosses in a (true) devastating fire that affected Georgie's friends and neighbors (that occurred on the same night as Chicago's Great Fire). Again, interesting history, but it felt like one more thing hanging on the very thin shoulders of this novel.

The audiobook is narrated by Tara Sands. Although Sands channels young girls pretty well -- with a liveliness and seesawing emotion appropriate to the story -- she has a strange drawl that sounds like Georgie is from the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. She also interprets Georgie's independent streak with a choppy and overly emphatic delivery that was hard to listen to for almost seven hours. Sands reads the author's note (happily included) with the same punchiness, so maybe it's just her narrative style. Odd that it hasn't bothered me until now.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books were big faves of mine when I was an elementary school reader, so I probably would have loved this book as a nine-year-old. As a grumpy 50-something, it just didn't send me. I keep meaning to revisit a Little House book on audio; maybe I'm scared I'll feel the same way about them. (Although I see that the great actress Cherry Jones is the reader ... tempting.)

[I do like it when books give me all sorts of illustration options, so I've got both here. The photograph of the plaque commemorating the Peshtigo fire is from Wikimedia Commons.

["Martha, last of her species, died at 1 p.m., 1 September 1914, aged 29, in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. EXTINCT." This photograph is from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (where Martha now resides) and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
Narrated by Tara Sands
Listening Library, 2013.  6:45

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy

So, let's see what happens. I'm on a Greyhound bus riding from Cleveland to Buffalo and there's a little wifi symbol on the exterior of the bus. But we're stopped at a McDonald's outside of Erie, PA and I seem to be connected to the wifi there. As soon as the bus pulls away, we'll see where we are (she says, saving this as a Word document just in case!). [And just as an aside, there are a number of Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch (who are speaking in a language other than English) on this bus ... so while waiting in the bus station in Cleveland, I had brief Witness flashbacks. In a total moment of ... something ... Witness was an answer in the crossword puzzle I was doing!]

And so technology fails us. There is no wifi on the Greyhound bus. And now that everyone is fueled with some tasty animal fat, the sleepiness (and quiet) of the beginning of the journey gone.  One lovely thing about the Amish: No cell phones. (I am certain there are more lovely things about the Amish.)

I'm here to talk about a book. Really.  All this 2013-2014 “school” year, I’ve been running two book groups at the library – reading different books, but each with a Middle East/Islamic theme. The last book that had to be read was Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. This memoir, translated by Maureen Freely, was published before Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. Because I couldn't locate a single copy at any library, I joined (and then unjoined) Audible for my free audiobook and downloaded this book, narrated by John Lee.

For a book about memory, I find I have little recollection of its particulars. The overall theme is Pamuk’s reminiscences of a youth spent in an old neighborhood of the city, where the unstable marriage of his parents meant that he had a lot of independent time to freely roam. He completely identifies as Istanbulli, his sense of himself is wrapped up in his feelings for the city. Among other things, Pamuk discusses paintings of the city created by Antoine Ignace Melling (a long-time German resident of the city), and an earlier memoir written by a syphilitic Gustave Flaubert, as well as boat trips across the Bosphorus, dusty bookstores, an odd teenage love affair with a young girl who modeled for him, and the grand house that his fractious extended family lived in, while his father and uncles frittered away the family fortune. 

We learn how he was an indifferent student who started an engineering degree at his parents' insistence, but he really saw himself as a painter. But somewhere along the way, he became a writer. Istanbul is imbued with a sense of melancholy, or huzun (described at length in the book), of a time that is metaphorically shrouded in mist. Indeed, a month later, that melancholy is what I remember most about it.

John Lee, though, is the perfect narrator for this book. His precise speech provides the aural equivalent of Pamuk’s distant memories, while his resonant voice evokes the melancholy felt by the person recalling those memories. There is a slight sing-song quality to his delivery that contributes to the memorial feeling of the book. Lee has no trouble with the Turkish names, and indeed carries off some French as well. I know that the author’s name is pronounced PA-mück (not pa-MOOK [Downton Abbey pronunciation]).

One of the aforementioned book groups will be continuing this fall and a novel by Pamuk is on the reading list, Snow. Thankfully, because I actually find his writing somewhat dense, John Lee reads the audiobook. Look for it in about six months.

[Melling's engraving of the Palace of Hatice, the Sultan Mehmed IV's mother, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[Pamuk uses the title of this post as his epigraph, quoting from the Turkish novelist Ahmet Rasim.]

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
Narrated by John Lee
Random House Audio, 2013.  9:46