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 hims 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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hmmmm hm hm hmmmm

"Kt -- kl, va, va, tk-tk, hr'wo-gep-gep-gep" is some of the scintillating dialogue of the title character in Daniel Kraus' Scowler, winner of this year's Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production of books for children and young adults. It's the second time this author/narrator/production team won: the first was in 2012 for Rotters. Knowing the author's predilection for horror, I was prepared for the worst ... but I just can't imagine the worse. This was chilling.

Nine years before the start of the novel -- in 1972 -- Ry Burke sent his father to prison. Marvin had spent Ry's lifetime physically and mentally abusing his wife and son, but when he sews his wife Jo Beth to the sheets (for daring to earn a little income from dressmaking) -- from which she is rescued by her 10-year-old son -- the family, including Ry's toddler sister Sarah, attempts escape. On a freezing night, Marvin -- who has already struck the boy in the head with a baseball bat -- stalks Ry into a dark glade where the only thing that saves the boy is the conversation and companionship of three toys: Mr. Furrington, a plush bear; a plastic Jesus Christ; and a humanoid folk-art figure crafted of metal parts, Scowler. At the urging of Scowler, Ry plunges his sharp metal legs into his father's neck, ensuring that he is rescued and Marvin is jailed.  There is no doubt that Ry is injured both physically and mentally, but when his mother throws away his toys, he is able to man up and try and help her run the family's isolated Iowa farm.

Now that he's graduated from high school, Ry is at that place where he knows he should leave, but can't figure out how or where to go. When a disheveled stranger appears at the end of their drive, the Burkes invite him in, only to discover that he's escaped from a nearby prison -- a prison, he informs them, that also houses Marvin Burke. The stranger escaped because a meteorite destroyed the prison, so the family has real reason to believe that Marvin will soon be back to claim his farm and -- in his perverted way -- his family.

And so he does, arriving at approximately the same time as another meteor crashes to earth on the Burke farm. For the next 24 hours, Marvin terrorizes his family in a variety of unspeakable ways and Ry tumbles into madness (caused by his proximity to the meteorite's magnetic field?) -- now believing that his three inanimate friends are back to help him once again. Yet Ry's madness is now as violent as his father's and we are never certain if he wishes to help or destroy his mother and sister.

This book went too far for me. There's no doubt that violent families exist and that violence begets violence but the descriptions here verged on the edge of violent porn for me. The passages are lengthy, the blood flow and the emotional degradation wallow in the details, and it just seemed unending. At one point, Marvin shaves Ry's head (so that he will mirror his father) to which the boy is a willing participant, and I felt like a grubby little observer to an overly personal interaction. Where Kraus describes Ry freeing his mother from the stitched prison of her bedsheets, it was just more intimate information than I needed to hear in a book published for teens.

At the same time, the depiction of a family that deals with a dominant abuser seems utterly authentic. An accommodating intimacy as wife attempts to appease husband, a curious young child who doesn't remember her parent's violence, and a son whose only recourse seems to be to become his father.

Kirby Heyborne channels Kraus' prose again, and he is pretty excellent. I'm not his biggest fan, but he really rises to the occasion here. His light, dare-I-say-callow voice is transformed into several surprising characters: the deep, gravelly menace of Marvin who is most threatening when he hums tunelessly (see post title), the serene delivery of Jesus Christ, the pip-pip English accent of Mr. Furrington, and a strong yet fearful (but not femmy) Jo Beth. Ry's transformation from terrified 10-year-old to terrifying 19-year-old is very clear in Heyborne's narration. And then there's Scowler, which Heyborne reads with the ease and confidence of someone reading straightforward dialogue. It's really masterful.

Heyborne's experience as a narrator is demonstrated in his command of the pacing of the novel. There is a high level of tension sustained in this story, but Heyborne never lets it control him. Tension ebbs and then builds through his voice, authentic and consistent dialogue, and a varied pace that holds us in suspense and then releases us (but not much).

I've enjoyed the last few Heyborne narrations I've listened to, maybe it's time to move on from my "dislike." He's demonstrated he has the chops.

Publisher Listening Library created a couple of peeks "inside" the audiobook that are pretty interesting: An interview with Kraus and Heyborne talking about he came to read Scowler. I was surprised to learn that Heyborne only met Kraus at the 2012 Odyssey reception honoring Rotters. Although, why am I surprised? Why would these two meet? When I was on Amazing Audiobooks, Listening Library always took us out to lunch and invited an author to join us. While we would talk audiobooks with these individuals, I don't think I ever even asked if they had met "their" narrators. How dumb was that?

[Perhaps the most famous meteorite in the United States, the Willamette Meteorite was found near where I live and now resides at the American Museum of Natural History. This photograph, taken by herval, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Scowler by Daniel Kraus
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Listening Library, 2013.  11:12

That's what it's all about

Jerry Spinelli's Hokey Pokey provided a bit of relief from fairy tale and Nazi horrors in my recent round of listening. For all that, though, I found it hard to like. It tells of one day in the life of a boy named Jack who rides around the Neverland (i.e., boys' paradise) of Hokey Pokey -- atop the noble bicycle Scramjet, stomping in puddles, watching cartoons, enjoying the sno-cone-like hokey pokeys, the popular Big Kid for all the kiddie residents from toddler to adolescent. It's pretty heavenly ... until Jubilee steals the bike.

And paints it yellow. And renames it Hazel. But it's not the only thing to be off on this one day: Jack can hear the train whistle, yet the train never comes to Hokey Pokey, and the tattooed eye on his belly is fading fast. Could Jack be living The Story of Hokey Pokey's most famous resident, The Kid, who announced one day that he would be leaving and was never seen again? His amigos, LaJo and Dusty, try to cheer him up, but it turns out that Jubilee seems to understand him better now. Jack gets his one-way ticket at the station and hops the train.

And it was all a dream. Jack wakes up remembering that today's the day he and his dad are going to repaint his room -- covering over that kiddie fish wallpaper. Yes, it was time for Jack to leave Hokey Pokey, for our Jack is growing up. He's even put his dirty laundry in the hamper.

Maybe it's because I was never a boy, but this was a real yawner for me. Spinelli is clearly reliving his own childhood because Hokey Pokey is a nostalgic look at a childhood of Looney Tunes cartoons and playing cowboys (however, with nary an Indian in sight). Hokey Pokey is what boys like to do. (I vaguely remember some mention of where you go to play with dolls, but it was only mentioned in passing ... and with disdain.) Jubilee is a risk-taking tomboy, dare I say the kind of girl a pre-adolescent boy might find worth knowing? Then Spinelli goes and authors it all up with run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness self-consciousness, and made-up words (Snotsippers, Gapergums, Sillynillys and Longspitters are all used to describe Hokey Pokey's younger residents).

Most of the novel is narrated by Maxwell Glick, who brings appro- priate youth- fulness to his reading. He also chooses to read with a reverence that no doubt contributed to my general feeling of ho-hum about the book. While there are some differing characterizations and the pace occasionally varies, most of Glick's narration feels stilted, every word receives the same emphasis as if he's worried that he might skip over something.

Tara Sands reads the few chapters from Jubilee's perspective. Her light, lively voice injects a much-needed jolt of energy to the proceedings, making Jubilee's brief appearances most welcome. (Or is that because I'm a girl?) I understand why she was brought in to read Jubilee's chapters, yet at the same time  I wonder why different male readers were not employed to read the chapters featuring LaJo or the boy named The Destroyer. Navigating Early had too many narrators, this book doesn't have enough.

Early last year, this book led the Newbery sweepstakes, but then it faded fast. Over at Heavy Medal, one of the moderators tried to play nice, while more recently, Origami Yoda's Tom Angleberger declared it the winner of its Battle of the Kids' Books bracket. Curiouser and curiouser. I think my oww dislike was the whole boy-stuff = childhood, but I think it's had its problems finding young readers. Is this a book for pre-adolescents (who may not get it?) or for adolescents (who might find it awfully pretentious and ... yes, childish?) or for adults (not this one)? A conundrum.

[I found the map of Hokey Pokey -- which is in the print book -- at NPR.]

Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli
Narrated by Maxwell Glick and Tara Sands
Listening Library, 2013.  5:59

Monday, March 17, 2014

Häftling einundfünfzigtausendvierhundertachtundneunzig (Prisoner 51,498)

Not quite a year ago, I listened to Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.  I had already eye-read it, but enjoyed it so much (not only for the vivid depiction of a female friendship, but for its puzzle qualities) that I knew a listen would not be a hardship. It was wonderful in audio form as well.  So, when Wein's "companion" to Verity was published last year, I knew that I wanted to listen to it as well. Rose Under Fire is very different from Verity, and suffers in comparison. I felt oppressed by the violence and the emotional hardships that Rose Justice experiences; there wasn't much of a payoff for all the pain. Is it simply too real?

First things first: Rose Under Fire brings back our beloved pilot Maddie Brodart who survived the events of Verity and continues her work with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), flying military planes and important passengers to air bases around England and -- once the D-Day Invasion takes hold -- northern France. She (thankfully) marries Julie's brother, Jamie.

But this isn't Maddie's story -- it's Rose's. Rose Justice is a 19-year-old American pilot with the ATA, and in the fall of 1944, she's assigned a flight in northern France. On her way, she gets distracted by a "doodlebug," the V-1 flying bombs (or what we might call a drone today) which were terrorizing southern England. She "tips" the V-1 with her wing, disabling it, but afterwards finds herself lost over German territory. Two Luftwaffe pilots draw near and firmly compel her to land. Once she's surrendered the plane and her identity papers, Rose is put in a truck for transfer to the Ravensbrück "work" camp. Assigned a number, which she must embroider onto her too-small "uniform" (a cast-off [undoubtedly from a Jew] dress), she is put to work in the Siemens plant on the perimeter of the camp, but when she realizes that she is assembling doodlebugs she resists. After a severe beating, where she is so injured she cannot sit down, she is reassigned to barracks where she meets the "rabbits," who befriend and protect her.

The rabbits were 74 Polish women imprisoned at Ravensbrück for various crimes (but not for being Jewish) near the beginning of the war. Nazi doctors (and they weren't all doctors) used these women as lab rats, performing various medical experiments on them, ostensibly to determine what techniques would work on battlefield injuries. Many did not survive, but an astonishing number left the camp when the Russians liberated it in 1945. (At her website, Wein has done amazing work memorializing these women.)

Rose means to tell the story of the camp, but when she makes her daring escape (by plane, naturally) as the Germans are frantically gassing as many inmates as possible, she is so emotionally wounded by her imprisonment (what we would call post-traumatic stress) that she needs all her courage to attend the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg in 1946 or the special Ravensbrück trial that followed a few months later. It is her fellow internee, the youngest rabbit, Roza -- imprisoned at 14 and permanently scarred -- whose bravery finally helps Rose to return to Germany.

The story is as ghastly as my synopsis implies, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the inspiring core of the novel: the prisoners. Wein introduces us to at least a dozen vividly portrayed women -- not just the Polish rabbits, but a French novelist, a Russian aviatrix, and an American-educated camp guard with a fondness for Boston cream pie. There's not much suspense to their story, however, because Rose is telling us her story after she has escaped Ravensbrück. This makes the chapters taking place at the camp feel relentless. Yes, these women cared for one another, saved one another, but their suffering is hard to bear. It's equally hard to listen to Rose, hiding herself away in a room at the Ritz in Paris in the aftermath.

Rose is journaling her story, both before she ends up at the concentration camp and after she escapes, because she promised to "tell the world." She's a poet who frequently treats us to her poetry in her journals, which I found pretty labored (but I don't consider myself a very good judge of poetry). In a moment of true art, though, Rose crafts a mnemonic poem listing all the names of the rabbits, a poem that ensures that each will be remembered, if only by name.

The audiobook is narrated by Sasha Pick. She reads Rose's first person story in (as it says on her webpage) a "bright, engaging and smiley" narration that is quite perfect for a 19-year-old girl on her own for the first time and doing what she loves. There's authentic emotion in her reading and she gives the story a skilled and varied pace. She rattles off German with confidence, and I liked the broad Northern English accent she gives Maddie.  There are a number of opportunities for Pick to sing and she sings beautifully.

However, once Rose lands in Ravensbrück, the narration starts to fray a bit. Pick's breezy style doesn't really portray Rose's fear and despair. The eastern European accents all sound forced. To add insult, the author has provided very specific instructions for the speaking voice of Roza -- high in register and screechy -- and Pick takes this direction to heart. And, oh god, it's truly dreadful to listen to. Roza is a very complex character -- as the youngest rabbit, she should evoke nurture and protectiveness in the older inmates, but she's spoiled and reckless and very hard to like. Clearly, she's damaged both in mind and body, but knowing her only through her voice makes hard to feel sympathetic.

Pick also gives some English words an English accent, not an American one. The one I remember is STRAW-bury not strawberry. There was also a very odd pronunciation of John Deere: John Dearie. I don't think a girl from near Hershey, Pennsylvania would have ever gotten that so very wrong.

The audiobook also includes an afterword read by Wein herself. She reads with passion -- the story of the rabbits is clearly important to her. "I have tried" [to tell the world], she writes.

Rose Under Fire received the Schneider Family Book Award this January, for the teen book that best "embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience." This was a bit of a head-scratcher for a while as Schneider books are usually a little more obvious in their disabilities. But Rose Justice's PTSD is pretty harrowing, so ultimately a good choice.

[The photograph of women at Ravensbrück is from the German Federal Archives and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[Ravensbrück rabbit Jadwiga Dzido is showing her damaged leg to the tribunal at the Nuremberg Trial. She was scarred in sulfanilamide experiments where bacteria was introduced into wounds which were then "treated" with the drugs. It was retrieved from the Jewish Virtual Library.]

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Narrated by Sasha Pick
Bolinda Audio, 2013.  11:43

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The keeper did a-hunting go

And now let the torture of the children begin. I've been listening madly to the books for the youth -- trying to make up for last year's relative drought by making my way through the Battle of the Kids' Books titles and then to move on to the award winners. And of the four in my ears since I started -- three have involved torture/physical and/or mental abuse of those who can't vote. Really, is it any wonder I stopped reading?

Tom McNeal's Far Far Away takes place in Never Better, a middle-America town that you can only find if you look out of the corner of your eye at the just the right time. Jeremy Johnson Johnson lives there with his father -- who retreated to his bedroom shortly after his wife left him. He does OK in school, but tries to keep a low profile because kids make fun of his dad, and he has this habit of talking to himself that the others make fun of. In truth, Jeremy is talking to the wandering ghost of Jacob (pronounced YAH-cub) Grimm, of the well-known Grimms. Jacob has been unable to move on to an afterlife, as he has some unfinished business -- uncover and stop the Finder of Occasions, "someone with tendencies ... tortured and malignant." When he discovered that Jeremy could hear him (Jeremy is clairaudient), Jacob believes that protecting the boy is the work he must do. He's hung out with Jeremy in Never Better for about five or six years, but there's been no sign of the Finder.

When Jeremy is finally in danger (which takes way too long, and the source of his peril is telegraphed way too early and given away on the cover of the book), Jacob is all but helpless. He watches as Jeremy and two of his friends are slowly, agonizingly starved to death. It is his determination to communicate with another in Never Better (through singing ... I liked that), that enables Jacob to rescue his friend, and to move on to that heaven -- or whereever -- finally reunited with his brother.

Jacob is telling us the story, which begins promisingly: "What follows is the strange and fateful tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost." But did you notice that I provided this synopsis of the events of this novel as Jacob Grimm experienced them? I think this is what bugged me most about this book (which -- torture aside -- I didn't like very much): It's Jacob's book, not Jeremy's. And while the writing is occasionally lovely, related by a consummate storyteller (Jacob), its leisurely pace and adult perspective make it hard to enjoy as a book for young readers.  I'm not particularly familiar with Grimm's fairy tales (correctly, Children's and Household Tales), so any connection of Jeremy's story with that of the Grimm "originals" are mostly lost on me ... beyond the obvious "Hansel and Gretel." As for the "final" (i.e., hardest) question on the Uncommon Knowledge quiz show being about the Disney-fied version of "Snow White" ... well, that stretches belief.

Since this novel is narrated by an ancient ghost, the choice of narrator is excellent! W. Morgan Sheppard has a scratchy, old-man's hoarse voice with an underlying tenderness that perfectly demonstrates Jacob's fondness for his young friend. Sheppard, who is familiar to me from a long-ago failed television program called Max Headroom, invests his narration with plenty of authentic emotion -- Jacob's fears are clear in the reading.

He doesn't really voice this novel, there are slight variations in inflection for a few of the characters, but the story doesn't need it, it's perfectly fine to have all the characters and dialogue filtered through the old man. For the most part, Sheppard reads in a straightforward English accent; he slightly American-izes some of the dialogue, and he can bring a Teutonic tinge to certain words and phrases. Sheppard paces the slowly teased-out plot with enough variation to keep it interesting for the most part, but ultimately I was bored.

I mentioned earlier the singing as a form of ghostly communication, but alas Sheppard himself doesn't sing. (It's the plot point that counts.) Here is the song that Jacob employs; it's one of those that seems so innocuous, but once you look closely at the lyrics, oh boy ... disturbing! An excellent choice for this novel, though. And speaking of music, the audiobook's short intro has a nice sense of looming danger and mysterious happenings, setting the tone in less than a minute.

As I've been enjoying the Portland-filmed television series, Grimm, having a ridiculous amount of fun identifying where a scene has been filmed or a local actor, this book makes me ponder the continuing appeal of these brothers. Almost Holmesian in their breadth: retellings in adult fiction, novels for kids, movies, etc. Considering the modern setting of Far Far Away, now that I think about it, how odd it is that Jacob hasn't noticed how far and wide his fame has spread.

[Jacob's the one in profile in this "Doppelporträt der Brüder Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm," painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann. It hangs in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
Narrated by W. Morgan Sheppard
Listening Library, 2013. 10:58

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Night, night

Since I read a lot of mystery fiction, I feel inured to most forms of violent death (let me emphasize -- in fiction; no one I've known has died from violence). Descriptions of wounds and rotting flesh don't really make me squeamish; the point of mysteries is not the victim but the solution, so I can mostly gloss over the details of the initial crime. But Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead (or is it Sleepy Head?) gave me big-time creeps. Because the victim isn't exactly dead ... she's worse than dead. She's locked in.

It wasn't until Alison Willets ended up not dead in the ICU that Detective Inspector Tom Thorne realized that she -- and the three young women who had previously died of mysterious strokes -- was a victim of a crime, of a killer who actually doesn't want to be a killer. Champagne Charlie incapacitates his randomly chosen victims with drugged Champagne, then he places enough pressure on their neck arteries to induce a debilitating stroke, resulting in a waking coma or locked-in syndrome. The brain works, but the body doesn't. Alison was Charlie's first success, and oh is he proud.

Thorne, a typical fictional "maverick" policeman -- prefers to work alone, operates on the edges of legal procedure, listens to "authentic" music that identifies him as a man of independent intelligence, and despite physical flaws (his subordinates refer to him as the Weeble behind his back) and middle age has no difficulty getting women to sleep with him -- believes he has pegged the murderer as Dr. Jeremy Bishop, the anesthetist who cared for Alison when she was first admitted. But even though the killer demonstrates some perverse connection to Thorne, he is careful to leave no evidence, and only Thorne is convinced that it's Bishop. And the last time Thorne trusted his instincts, things went terribly wrong.

The novel switches between three perspectives: Thorne, the killer (both from the third-person), and Alison.  The killer continually drops hints about his activities and motivations, without giving the game fully away. Alison -- full of wit and sarcasm -- struggles with the knowledge of her condition and strains to communicate with eye blinks and an alphabet board. Thorne's sections move the story along while providing insights into his troubled past and present loneliness.

Aside from the deeply disturbing condition of Alison Willets, which just gave me the willies, I found Sleepyhead fairly ordinary detective fiction. Few surprises, fairly standard characters, a modicum of suspense, and a perpetrator that I sussed out really, really early (I'm not usually this clever). I've got to say that when Thorne cued up the Johnny Cash in his car stereo, there was some serious eye-rolling on my part. Thorne's chase to stop the last murder is a nailbiter, although the scene he comes upon was like a bad opera -- with a whole lot of singing (to extend the metaphor) from the killer before the denouement.

I haven't heard Simon Prebble narrate very many books, so I look for opportunities to remedy that. When I saw he was the narrator of this book -- offered via the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program -- I requested it. Prebble is such a fine, consistent reader -- infusing the narrative with honest emotion, authentic voices and brilliant pacing. He alters his reading speed along with the timbre and volume of his speech to build suspense, create characters and always move the story forward with excitement and interest. Sleepyhead is no exception.

Prebble changes his delivery with each narrative perspective -- it's clear when we move from one to another.  He voices the characters distinctively but without a lot of drama, which makes everyone sound natural. When he's reading Alison's sections, he moves into a higher register without being femmy and her underlying fear and hovering tragedy are clear in Prebble's voice.

I wish the producer had inserted just a wee bit more silence when the perspectives changed, though. The switches -- although clear in Prebble's narration -- gave this listener a bit of whiplash as my brain tried to catch up with each change. A short pause would have helped to prepare me, serving the same purpose as that bit of white space does in print.

At the end of the novel, Alison makes the decision that I think I would make were I in her shoes, and I'm glad that Billingham chose that fate for her. In his afterword (ooh! so happy the afterword was included!), originally published in 2001, Billingham makes a dig at English politicians who, "while they happily purchase private healthcare, consistently refuse to fund the NHS [National Health Service] adequately in the hope that it will die a nice quiet death." Sounds a little like our no-nothing Congress, except that they are going about their hoped-for execution of the Affordable Care Act with a great deal of noise.

HighBridge Audio provided me a copy of Sleepyhead. I thank them for the opportunity to listen.

[The illustration of the physics principles by which a Weeble operates was created by KDS444 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Narrated by Simon Prebble
HighBridge Audio, 2013. 10:32