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

Science guy, erudite and kind, balding but handsome

I think I came across An Available Man when I was making a readers' advisory booklist a year or so ago. The sweetness of the book appealed, I think, plus maybe its New Yorkishness. Regardless, I had some idle ears looking for a short listen a few weeks ago and found it on the shelf. Hilma Wolitzer's novel about a bereaved widower trying to get back into the swing of things was a lovely interlude.

Edward Schuyler's beloved Bee dies rapidly after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and she's been gone for about six months. He'd met Bee, divorced with two young children, when he'd given up dating for good -- after a disastrous relationship that ended with him stranded at the altar. They'd been married for not quite 20 years. With Bee's loss, Edward -- a 62-year-old science teacher and birdwatcher -- just can't seem to move forward. He can go through the motions, but everything reminds him of Bee. Invited to close friends' dinner party, he is appalled to see that another singleton (to borrow from another book) has been invited as well. This woman is just as irritated by the obviousness of this ploy as he is.

Not very much later, Edward's stepdaughter and stepdaughter-in-law bring over a package of letters for him to read. They've placed a personals ad (see post title) in The New York Review of Books, and these are the 40-some replies. They all go straight into the "crazy" kitchen drawer, but later Edward goes through them. He goes on a couple of disastrous dates, but -- more importantly -- he begins to see how he can go on loving Bee but be without her. And he does, of course, find another lucky woman with whom to share his life.

I found this very charming and affectionate, feeling the author’s love not only for Edward, but for his upper-middle-class, New-York-Review-of-Books-reading New York (even though Edward lives in New Jersey). Having read a "life and relationships" (one of the categories created at my library to showcase new books) novel or two (or 20) like this, I pegged Edward’s last lover practically the moment she appeared, and gnashed my teeth in frustration at his interlude with a woman who is up to no good! I also found this latter woman’s behavior not quite that of a 60-something with no discernible means of support. But that's a quibble.

The audiobook is narrated by Fred Sullivan (whoever this generically named narrator may be). He does a fine job with this novel, reading with an accessible and friendly baritone. Edward's warmth and underlying grief is evident in Sullivan's reading of the third-person narration. He reads at a subtly varied pace and never forgets the story's humor or its occasional flashes of irony. Sullivan reveals the novel's characters through natural voices, easy to distinguish and pleasant to listen to. There's nothing here not to like. A perfect summer read/listen.

I'm generally not a personals ad reader, but perusing the ones at the Review is kind of fun! And since I'm at a certain age (and not looking), I found the real estate ones equally dreamy. Can you take a prospective mate and visit "PARIS. Attractive, furnished 3-room apartment, between Bastille and République, 11th Arrondissement, elevator building, kitchen and bathroom, maid weekly, €2,500 a month."? 

[Edward spots an old flame at the Museum of Modern Art exhibit Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, where viewers entered a gallery by squeezing through the space between two naked individuals. This image of Abramović's work is one suitable for all readers. It's from a film, The Future of Art, posted by the cinematographer -- Christian Görmer -- to Wikimedia Commons.

[A sample of the personals appearing in the Review, retrieved from the publication's website.]

An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer
Narrated by Fred Sullivan
AudioGO, 2012. 7:47

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The wilderness years

I've been on a World War II kick for some time now (mentioned before), but have veered lately (with the exception of the wonderful All the Light We Cannot See) into the speculative arena with a couple of "alternative" versions. One, in print only, is Jo Walton's Small Change series (highly recommended) and another is Michelle Cooper's Montmaray Journals. The middle in the latter trilogy, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, was (somewhat) recently in the ears.

The FitzOsbornes are the owners/rulers of a small island in the Bay of Biscay, Montmaray, that was bombed and overrun by Nazis in the first novel. The king was slightly mad and died just prior to the invasion, and his heir is not his extremely capable daughter, Veronica, but her cousin, the feckless Toby. Toby's younger sister, Sophie, keeps the journals that are telling this story.

In this installment, Sophie describes the aftermath of the family's flight to England (to live with their wealthy aunt) and their efforts to bring the plight of Montmaray to the attention of the League of Nations as Europe stumbles towards war in the late 1930s. There's also a certain amount of gaiety as Aunt Charlotte tries to prepare a reluctant Veronica and Sophie to enter society and Toby gets regularly sent down from his studies at Oxford. Add to the mix youngest sister and tomboy Henrietta (Henry) and the dead king's bastard son, Simon, along with a cameo appearance by Jack and Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, and you should have a Masterpiece Theatre-ready costume drama.

Instead, it is a big schizophrenic yawn. Does it want to be a political story or a novel of gay (in the old sense) young things? (Speaking of gay, Toby comes out as homosexual and everyone is perfectly OK with it!! Really? 1930s? Oy!) It veers back and forth with screeching changes in tone and then comes to an abrupt end with a not-so-nail-biting trip to Geneva chased by the Nazi who led the invasion of Montmaray. There's a great deal of talking, talking, talking without much of anything happening. Now, as I've said, I love my World War II historical fiction, but this felt like it would never end. Get to the war, already (which it evidently does in Book 3)!

The audiobook is narrated by Emma Bering. I see that I've listened to her previously, and appear to have enjoyed her work, but here she's gone seriously wrong. She reads with a very odd, English-ish accent that sounds off from the beginning. Is she trying to invent a Montmaravian accent in her narration as Sophie? If she is, it's too bizarre and so only calls attention to itself as bad, rather than different. It doesn't sound remotely natural, so her reading isn't relaxed. The vowels are oddly exaggerated, occasionally she sounds almost drunk. As an example, here's her pronunciation of persuaded: per-soo-aided.

I have a note that says Aunt Charlotte = ghastly. I can't remember exactly what I meant by this, but I'm pretty sure she was screechy in a Monty-Python-drag kind of way. And Bering's inconsistent when she reads the word Montmaravian: Sometimes it's a long a for the third syllable, and sometimes it's an ah -- Mont-more-AH-vee-an.

So perhaps it isn't the novel that felt like such a slog, it's the uncomfortable listening that made it onerous. Back when I was listening "professionally" for Amazing Audiobooks, I had a colleague who referred to a Fakeland accent. Bering's Sophie is a prime example of this. In the final analysis, she's probably a good narrator (she's read an Odyssey Honor book) having a very bad day.

When the book was published, there was some discussion of the mysterious smoke on the cover photograph. Just like Clement Hurd's photograph for newer editions of Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, the cigarette is missing. I hated smoking when I was the age of the intended readers of this book; I wonder if a visible cigarette would have been a turnoff. As far as I can remember, nobody actually smokes in this book ... but, of course, nearly everybody did in the 1930s, so I think I'm in favor of the return of the item. What would really benefit the series, though, is a uniform design. The U.S. cover of the first book needs updating, because -- aside from the fact that it doesn't match the other two -- it looks like an old-fashioned submarine emerging from the sea.

Ooh, I've just been a hater here. It's time to stop.

[Here is Lady Hartington, neé Kathleen Kennedy, photographed in 1943 in her Red Cross uniform, long after she met Sophie and Veronica, but just a year before her marriage to the heir of the Duke of Devonshire. This image, from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The FitzOsbornes in Exile (The Montmaray Journals, Book 2) by Michelle Cooper
Narrated by Emma Bering
Listening Library, 2011. 14:32

All winds go sighing/For sweet things dying

What I did on my summer vacation: Listened to lots and lots of books and not blogged about them. I've already taken my official (time off work) vacation, although I've got a nice weekend at the beach planned for a few weeks from now. And since where I'm staying doesn't have wifi, I'd like to enjoy those few days with a clear conscience. So here goes.

I absolutely loved Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling. I'm late to the party, per usual, although I did grab a Lucky Day copy of The Silkworm on July 3 and read it from cover to cover on our nation's birthday (a fine way to celebrate one's independence). I love the fact that she-who-shall-not-be-named continues to write under this pseudonym, even though she was utterly outed.

The Cuckoo's Calling introduces us to a damaged (physically and emotionally), yet sympathetic hero, the private eye Cormoran Strike. Barely getting by after losing a leg in Afghanistan and leaving the military, Strike has had one final blow-up with his rich, beautiful girlfriend and is sleeping on the couch in his office on Denmark Street. A temp secretary named Robin Ellacott shows up in error on the same morning that a lawyer named John Bristow does. Bristow is the adoptive brother of the sensational biracial model, Lula Landry, who fell out a window of her flat about three months earlier. The police have said that Lula committed suicide, but her brother thinks someone killed her. He hires Strike to find the truth.

And thus Strike, who is the barely acknowledged bastard son of a punk rock musician named Johnny Rokeby, enters the world of supermodels, rap musicians, fashion designers and their various hangers-on, as well as the parasitic paparazzi (called "paps") who record their every public (and occasionally private) move. And we, delightfully, enter the world of Cormoran Strike and are not disappointed.

Galbraith takes all the tropes of the private eye novel -- a man with a past, not conventionally attractive, his last-chance case, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, his efficient gal friday (who might be carrying a torch), and an affectionate tour of a particular setting -- and doesn't break any boundaries or go unexpected places. But he does tell a good story. And as he (she) excels at character, this book teems with vivid individuals: In addition to Cormoran and Robin, there's Cormoran's icy girlfriend, Lula's best friend, her driver and her favorite designer, her on-again/off-again rapper boyfriend, her loony upstairs neighbor, her angry birthmother, and a downtrodden junkie she met at rehab.

Which segues nicely to the audiobook. It's read by the actor Robert Glenister and he is very good. (Not realizing that there are two English actors named Glenister, I kept thinking he was his brother, Philip, who I remember from Life on Mars and Calendar Girls.) He reads with a slightly husky voice, rapidly but clearly. There's not a lot of drama in his reading but he maintains a listener's interest with ease. This is probably because -- like Galbraith -- he creates lifelike characters, everyone distinguished by a consistent accent or a delivery technique that keeps them all straight. With ease and confidence, Glenister can be an American rap musician, a Sloane Ranger-y entitled bitch, a strung-out black girl, an ambitious limo driver, a flamboyant designer (and frazzled assistant), an old woman deep in the pain of terminal cancer, a drunk and maudlin Cormoran, and Robyn's tedious fiancé, Matthew.

Not to be forgotten: Cormoran's straightforward English accent with a slight working-class edge and Robin's friendly and unflappable delivery. There are many other characters Glenister brings to life, but it's been awhile since I finished this book, and they have faded into the past.

Then there's fun English "insider" stuff, like the stress on the second syllable of Galbraith, and the pronunciation of cuckoo with the first syllable the same as that in cuckold. And the surprising (considering how "refined" Anglophiles like me find English speech) papa-RAT-zi, which somehow expresses the author's contempt for this group of journalists.

I like the brief generic music that begins and ends the novel. There's also a fair amount of Latin that Galbraith uses as epigraphs to the book's "parts" and Glenister pulls this off capably. "A Dirge" by Christina Rossetti serves as the novel's epigraph, and I've quoted from this for my post title.

Having now read The Silkworm, I'm enjoying the way Galbraith is slowly revealing more of Cormoran's back story and -- of course -- watching Robin come into her own (lose the fiancé!). I'll keep reading (and, depending on the competition, maybe listening).

[It's in The Silkworm that we learn that Cormoran is the name of a legendary Cornish giant, possibly killed by a boy named Jack. This image is from an 1820 Victorian chapbook and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, Book 1) by Robert Galbraith
Narrated by Robert Glenister
Hachette Audio, 2013. 15:54