Monday, January 26, 2015

Written for grown-up people

My book group met yesterday and, well, there are few things more satisfying that a bunch of smart women sitting around talking about a great book that we all liked. This group doesn't meet in December and likes to choose a lengthy "classic" for the gap between November and January. Last year it was The Age of Innocence and this year Middlemarch (almost three times as long!). I do appreciate the occasional glancing back to a book you "should" read (or perhaps wish to revisit since the last time you read it was in college).

George Eliot's tome was first published in 1872 when she was at the peak of her fame and creativity. It is the story not so much of one possibly star-crossed couple trying to get together over 800-odd pages (certainly the most obvious take on this work), but -- as is stated in its subtitle: "A Study of Provincial Life." Everyone in the small town of Middlemarch and its surrounding countryside comes under the scrutiny of Eliot's careful character development and incisive social commentary. We're all a little flawed in Eliot's view, but that's OK. We are interesting too.

In the beginning of the novel, we meet Dorothea Brooke, a slightly wealthy young woman of marriageable age who yearns to make a difference, to be something more than a provincial wife and mother. She rejects the courtship of the local squire (her sister later marries him, quite happily), and instead -- to the horror of all who know her -- weds the much older Reverend Casaubon hoping that she will become his muse, secretary, factotum as he writes his masterwork, "The Key to All Mythologies." She really, really misreads him (of course) -- and beginning on her lonely honeymoon in Rome -- seems consigned to a loveless union. Fortunately Rev. Casaubon dies within a year or so of their marriage, but because he is a jealous and cruel old man he adds a codicil in his will which will deprive Dorothea of her inheritance should she marry the one person we know to be her soulmate, Casaubon's second cousin, the handsome, impecunious Will Ladislaw.

Dorothea, or Dodo as her sister is wont to call her, disappears for long stretches of the novel as Eliot examines another bad marriage; that of the young Doctor Lydgate (who has some radical ideas about care for the sick) and local beauty (and serious narcissist) Rosamund Vincey. Their disintegrating marriage is actually quite painful to witness. Also putting in appearances: Rosamund's feckless brother Fred whose heart is in the right place but he can't always act on that, his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth (the novel's moral center), a liberal vicar who supports his elderly mother and maiden aunts with the occasional game of whist, the wealthy banker Bulstrode ... a man with a secret, and dozens of other denizens of Middlemarch whose brief character studies are deliciously descriptive without delving into the caricatures that Eliot's contemporary Charles Dickens might have created.

Yes, the language is 19th-century dense and ornate, but once you get your head around the long sentences (and ignore all those archaic references that Eliot's original readers would have all known), this is pure pleasure. The characters are wonderful, "mixed-up" people whose hearts are firmly on their sleeves so you can't help but feel love and/or sympathy (even for such baddies as Casaubon and Rosamund) for them. Eliot also has a terrific sense of the absurd, the novel is filled with laugh-out-loud moments. My personal favorite might possibly be the description of Dodo's baby nephew, adored by his overly doting mother, as the "infantine Buddha."

I opted for the audiobook initially because I knew as a listener that I could skate right over that lengthy Victorian prose; this helped immensely even though I ended up listening for about 26 days ($1.05 in overdues!). There are six unabridged versions listed on Audible, but I honed right in on the version read by Juliet Stevenson. Many years ago I listened to her read Sally Gardner's I, Coriander, which I absolutely loved. Her rich resonant voice, her honest emotions, and overall warmth made me want to hear her again. At last!

Stevenson is really terrific here. Never flagging over the dense text or its length, she was as honest and committed to her performance at the end as she was in the beginning. No surprise, she has that English actor's skill of multiple class accents that she pulls off without a hitch, particularly in Eliot's occasional set pieces of gossipy conversations at a dinner party or in a board room that make important plot points and give a flavor of that small town. She reads chapter epigraphs in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Old English, which all sound fine to me. (Perhaps a native speaker would have some quibbles.) She's got Eliot's sense of humor, providing an ironic tone when appropriate. I'm sure some of my enjoyment of the "infantine Buddha" was from Stevenson's delivery.

But where she really gets me in the solar plexus is her spot-on depiction of humanity. Dorothea's intense sadness is palpable, as is Will's dashing of Rosamund's (ridiculous) hopes as he realizes that Dorothea has witnessed them together, or Lydgate's despair over the collapse of his promising career, or poor Mr. Farebrother's (the gambling vicar) unrequited love for Mary and kindly encouragement of Fred in his wooing of her, or even Casaubon's crabbed inability to accept Dorothea's unfettered offers of true partnership. Stevenson has leapt into the category of "I'll-listen-to-anything-you-read," and there's so much already there: The Paying Guests, The Signature of All Things, Sweet Tooth.

I was leaning towards making my 2015 listening all (mostly) nonfiction, but maybe it should be all Juliet Stevenson. No, actually, that might be a bit much, I should dole her out so that the anticipation is as much fun as the listening.

I followed Middlemarch with Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch (just a few minutes left to hear as of this writing), which has totally added to my appreciation. Mead's work provides all sorts of background on Eliot and on the book's reception over time. She talks a bit about Virginia Woolf's now-famous statement on the book (in an essay written on the centenary of Eliot's birth): "... the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

Mead thinks that Woolf was being quite sly with the reference to grown-ups (instead of using the term adults), but I took this to as a reflection on how a book changes depending on where the reader is in his/her life. It's not that only grown-ups can appreciate the novel's richness and subtleties, but that who you are at the time of your reading inevitably colors what you think. When I read this book as a college student (not yet a "grown-up"), it was all Dorothea/Will Ladislaw. But now I see (or hope I see) a fuller picture of what Eliot says in the very last sentence, as she describes Dorothea in the  future:

"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: For the growing good of the work is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

This grown-up knows that the most unhistoric life matters.

Interestingly, the audiobook just ends here. No closing credits. Of course that meant that I thought I'd missed something, so I listened to the last track again. Now I see that it is brilliant.

[A statue of Nuneaton's most famous daughter stands in the town square. This photo was taken by kevin roe as part of the geograph.org.uk project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. I cropped the smoker out of the picture.]

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot.
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson
Naxos Audiobooks, 2011.  35:40

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eat your veggies!

It is somehow fitting that the last audiobook I finished in 2014 is also the last of the YMAs that I said I would read/listen to a year ago. It wasn't that Creepy Carrots was the time suck that Middlemarch has been, rather it proved tricky to obtain. Somehow I didn't want to "waste" a hold and as a result I had to wait until December to listen to this 2014 Odyssey Honor audiobook.

Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown's pretty funny picture book (for which Brown won a 2013 Caldecott Honor) has been made into a pretty funny audiobook. It tells the story of one Jasper Rabbit who loves the carrots growing in Crackenhopper Field. But lately he's been feeling a bit paranoid, are those carrots following him? Brown's dark gray palette is enlivened by the bright orange of the carrots ... or is it the bright orange of the handles of the garden shears, or Jasper's rubber ducky, or even [gasp!] the flowers planted in the cemetery. Jasper comes up with a rather drastic solution, one that works out somewhat better for the carrots than for him. A twist that any justice-seeking four-year-old can truly appreciate.

The actor James Naughton reads the text. He's got a friendly bass-baritone that can go a little scary when necessary, and he keeps the pace fairly slow for the page-turning set. He gets to use a little onomatopoeia when the carrots follow Jasper, "tunktunktunk." And when a panicking Jasper shouts "Creepy carrots," Naughton gets a little hysterical.

The publisher, Weston Woods, always goes to town with the music and the sound effects and here is no exception. There's scary laughter (bwaa-ha-ha), giggling carrots, "terrible, carroty breathing," and that tunktunktunk is repeated in the music. A theremin-sounding theme pops up in several spots. When Jasper executes his plan there's a vaguely martial underbed along with the sound effects of sawing and hammering.

But my favorite all-time moment is when Jasper is brushing his teeth and he sees the creepy carrots in the bathroom mirror, peeking around the shower curtain. A short riff from Psycho slips in there to be missed by all the children, but enjoyed by the adults (I am too wimpy to watch this movie).

The last Odyssey committee to reward a picture book before this one was ... mine! Louise is in fine company (although she'd make short work of Jasper).

[Peter Brown has posted on his site some Creepy Carrots-inspired photographs from a bunch of third graders in Winnipeg. A commenter provided a Facebook link to more and the photo above is from that group, with most of the child cropped out.]

Creepy Carrots, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown
Narrated by James Naughton
Music by David Mansfield
Weston Woods, 2013. 0:08

Monday, January 19, 2015

Speak, Fido!

According to Lorrie Moore, those who first viewed the exterior covering of the brain thought it resembled the bark of a tree and so named it the Latin for bark, or cortex.  This is the third sense of bark that I recall from her recent short story collection of the same name, Bark: Stories.

There's the verb debark, also the title of the collection's first story: "Debarked" (which I interpreted as also meaning a way of reducing a dog's power, or in this case, that of the man at the center of the story). There's the bark of a dog who appears in the story "Wings." The New York Times reviewer cites a few more examples, although the epigraphs he mentions do not appear in the audiobook.

There are eight stories in this collection. Some are better than others, all seem to be infused with middle-aged regret and disappointment with a knowing acknowledgement of inherent ridiculousness of this regret. Several of them make mention of what might have been current events when Moore was writing; the invasion of Iraq, the revelations at Abu Ghraib prison, the (ridiculous) assertions about the birthplace of our current president. These dated the stories for me, and not in a good way.

A few highlights: Ira, the hapless hero of "Debarking," notes that he's dating a 10th grader. This boy's mother is Ira's first girlfriend following his divorce and she has what some might call a unhealthy relationship with her child. A group of women gather to mourn a friend (in the company of the ghost of the friend) in "The Juniper Tree" (title reference is not clear) and break out into "The Star-Spangled Banner." In "Thank You for Having Me," a mother and her teenaged daughter attend a wedding catered by the bride's ex-boyfriend that is mistakenly crashed by a group of Hells Angels. And in "Wings," a singer whose career is mostly behind her and with a do-nothing rock-and-roll boyfriend, strikes up a friendship with an old man.

The author reads her own work. On the scale of narrating authors, Moore is pretty good. She has an easy voice to listen to, with no particular accent but a unique whispery quality. There is the occasional mid-sentence pause, or a loud breath or gulp; I think these are evident only to really serious listeners because for the most part she reads with plenty of variation and interest. She doesn't attempt to create vocal characters, but it's not difficult to track the dialogue. A lot of my impression of inherent ridiculousness comes from her slightly ironic reading.

And she does offer a rendition of the end of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a husky, twangy alto.

Moore is the fourth author-narrator I listened to last year, and all of them were pretty good: Angelou, Federle, and Woodson. Special mention to Sonia Sotomayor, who read the prologue to her memoir (and stopped while she was ahead!).

[This is a horizontal slice of the head of an adult female, showing the cerebral cortex and underlying white matter. It was photographed at high resolution as part of the Visible Human Project and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore
Narrated by the author
Blackstone Audio, 2014.  5:20

Too many temptations in the big city

Just three stragglers (plus Middlemarch, finishing that today) to go! I find that when I have a "lot" of notes (beyond the ever so helpful great! or accents), it's usually because I found fault with the audiobook. Here are my notes, in their entirety for Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness, book one in the adventures of Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, otherwise known as Georgie:
  • American
  • English variety
I believe that I must be referring to the narrator's skill with accents, but really ... what am I supposed to say here?

I think I downloaded this as a freebie from Audible, a couple of years ago. It's been sitting on the computer since then and I needed a quick book around the holidays. Now, finally, it can be deleted.

Lady Georgie is umpteenth in line for the British throne in the 1930s, which means that she's got all the right social skills, but she's finding that these don't come in very handy when one needs to pay the bills. Bolting from her family's drafty Scottish pile and the threat of a Romanian fiancé, Georgie ends up in London trying to earn a living. She fails as a department store salesgirl, when she lands on the idea of offering her services as a housecleaner when well-to-do families need to open up their London homes. At the same time, her formidable great-aunt-in-law (Queen Mary) asks her to keep an eye on her son and that dreadful woman with whom he seems to be involved.

Then Georgie -- whose been surreptitiously camping in her family's home -- finds the body in the bathtub. And when her half-brother (heir to that Scottish pile) is arrested for the murder, Georgie decides she's got to find the real culprit.

This silly frothy story has noble antecedents (Lord Peter Wimsey), so there's really nothing new here. It's slight and slightly entertaining with plenty of humor and a fairly obvious puzzle. There's a hint of romance and lots of flavor of the glamorous 1930s. It was perfect for all the walks I took during my week off. No more, no less.

Katherine Kellgren shines in another example of a character she has made her own. I think there is an Audie or two in her quiver for these books. Her nasal, upper-crust delivery is utterly apropos for Georgie, the well-bred society girl. Georgie's intelligence and humor are evident in Kellgren's quick, dry narration. As usual, she reads the dialogue with distinct, natural characterizations and as my pitiful notes say, she is in command of a wide range of accents, including her much-married American actress mother and the formidable Queen ("It's not good for young 'gells' to be idle and unchaperoned.").

This was the fifth pseudonymous (that I know of) author I listened to in 2014 (le Carré, Galbraith, Tey, and Lockhart). Bowen's actual name is Janet Quin-Harkin, which sounds pseudonymous as well!

[Georgie is threatened with an invitation to Balmoral when Queen Mary asks for her help, another drafty Scottish castle. This photo was taken by Nick Bramhall and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen
Narrated by Katherine Kellgren
Audible, 2010.  8:04

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nothing can happen more beautiful than death

I've listened to quite a lot of Holly Black here at this blog (seven books). I like her blend of the fantastic and the everyday, i.e., fairies live among us, your neighbor could be a curse worker, dolls can come alive. It was on the basis of a rave Booklist review (sorry about the paywall), however, that led me to overcome my aversion to vampires and listen to The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

In a quite splendid opening, Tana awakens after a "sundown" party where she's passed out in the bathtub behind the shower curtain. This has saved her life, because the vampires who crept inside after someone had cracked a window after dark have slaughtered everyone in the house. Frantic to get back home before dark again, she finds two boys chained up in a bedroom: Her ex-boyfriend Aiden -- who appears to have been bitten but not killed -- and the mysterious Gavriel, already a vampire but weakened.

After a truly nail-biting escape out a window and into her car, where Tana felt the scratch of vampire teeth on her calf, the trio make their way to the nearest (and the original) Coldtown in what once was Springfield, Massachusetts. Coldtown is where Aiden will complete his transformation, Tana hopes to endure the 88-day quarantine to rid her blood of its vampire taint, and Gavriel, well Gavriel's got some unfinished business.

Once vampires emerged (hazy on the details of when and why), the U.S. government created Coldtowns, or places where vampires could live in peace. Outside of Coldtowns, vampires are hunted and staked. Such is the attraction of the undead, however, that many living people seek to enter Coldtowns in order to either become cold themselves or to offer up themselves as sustenance in order to experience the glamour of the Eternal Ball, shown nightly on live feeds watched by those inside and out. Tana's younger sister is a particular fan. Unfortunately, it is only under the most special circumstances that one can leave a Coldtown. Tana has the token, but will she survive to be able to use it?

The remainder of the novel does not live up to its wild, exciting opening, evolving into what to me is a conventional vampiric storyline: our heroine glams and muscles up, suddenly capable of feats of physical prowess; drop-dead gorgeous Gavriel is a humanist bloodsucker who only wants justice; betrayals, bloodshed and bodaciousness occur; topped off by the appearance of baby sister Pearl in Coldtown. Now it's personal.

Much, much better than the teen vampire novel you are all thinking of (no sparkling here), The Coldest Girl still exhibits the drawbacks of the teen vampire story. It's one story, it can't be any other. Authors, like Black, may add originality (like Homeland Security patrolling Coldtown), but the bones of the story stay the same: Human girl finds herself in contact with vampire boy who is unbearably attractive but also sensitive. Human girl becomes (super) heroic in some fashion and must decide whether to go cold or not. Other vampires are spectacularly evil, but incredibly glamorous. Maybe I've not read enough vampire books, but the ones I've read are ultimately all variations on this theme. And it just doesn't send me.

Now the audiobook -- while good -- does not overcome the weakness of the story. The narrator, Christine Lakin, is a great reader. She's got a memorably husky voice that is pretty perfect for a story from the third-person perspective of the slightly goth-y and angry Tana. Her pacing is terrific; as I said earlier the original escape from the farmhouse is excellently tense. There is a large cast of characters and Lakin admirably gives everyone a unique, natural voice, unless of course, they aren't natural. In which case, the vampires have an appropriate edge ... an edge of evil and ennui. Gavriel does have a bit of a portmanteau accent, a slightly awkward melange of French and Russian.

But even Lakin's reading can't help a story that feels too long, and yet paradoxically ends too fast. After feeling that it couldn't end soon enough for me, I was buffeted by a rapid series of events that bring the novel to a quick conclusion, and still affords me some confusion.

Some slightly ominous, driving, electronic music underbeds the opening and closing credits.

Black has done a terrific job of locating a marvelous collection of aphorisms about death; profound, funny, pertinent, that begin each of her chapters. This post's title is the first you hear, and comes from Walt Whitman.

[There's a Coldtown in northern England and this is its "carved stone name sign." The photograph was taken by Phil Catterall as part of the geograph.org.uk project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Narrated by Christine Lakin
Hachette Audio, 2013. 12:06

North by northwest

Zadie Smith's NW left me a little bit (well, a lot, actually) at sea and the intervening six weeks have not brought much enlightenment, plus I'm not sure it was the best candidate for audio (adding to my confusion?) so maybe I can get this post done quickly (hah!).

London, England is divided into two-letter postal codes (followed by a number, i.e., EC1) and I believe these codes are a shorthand for the neighborhood in which you might live, so when Smith titles her novel NW, she is setting it in a part of London that already has meaning for many of her readers. In my limited knowledge, her NW (unfortunately all those links to the Museum of London are dead) is poor, immigrant, and chock-a-block with public housing (council estates to those of us who read a lot of British fiction). Natalie and Leah grew up in an NW estate, Caldwell -- Natalie is black (first generation from the Caribbean), and Leah white (mixed Irish) -- but only Natalie (formerly Keisha) has moved out. She is a successful barrister and has a handsome mixed-race husband and two children. Leah lives with her African husband and is a social worker.

There are two black men who figure in the story as well, both childhood friends of Natalie and Leah.

NW takes place over an eventful year (I think I've got the time frame right), beginning when Leah is scammed out of £30 and ends with Natalie -- who is the novel's main character and has spent the year slowly straying from the path of "success" that she wanted so much -- returning to Caldwell and identifying a murderer.

Whew! The narrative is ... shall we say, experimental. We spend some conventional narrative time inside Leah's slightly trippy head (called "Host") and then have an interlude with Felix (one of the two men), and then we move on to Natalie/Keisha (called "Visitation"). And that's where I fell off the rails. Natalie's chapters are numbered and short and can be as much about a feeling as an action. Is it in Natalie's narrative where she walks through the neighborhood step-by-step a la Google maps, or is it Leah? At one point, Chapter 37 was followed by Chapter 16 (this is where I consulted the print book and I still don't know why). There are sections where an omniscient narrator appears and I couldn't track why this occurred. I experienced great leaps between and within chapters causing narrative whiplash and I finally decided that Smith was just relying on me to figure it out. I would have appreciated a little more help, I decided.

So, yes, the experimental narrative makes for difficult listening, but the audiobook's readers are very good. The bulk of the reading is from Karen Bryson, who reads both the Leah and Natalie sections. Bryson reads with a rapid neutrality in a soft and pleasant manner that is enlivened by her distinct and authentic character voices, she can move from the "street" of Caldwell's denizens to the "received" of her chambers colleagues effortlessly. Caribbean accents are interspersed with Irish, West African, and many others.

The other narrator, who reads Felix's interlude, is Don Gilet (jill-A). He has a nice baritone and reads the narrative with a slight working class accent. Dialogue is delivered with appropriate accents, natural sounding and interesting.

I have a note that reminds me that when Natalie is in an online chatroom, there are computer typing sound effects (my notes say "meh"). And there's another section where a bunch of women are sassily conversing ("where did all the good brothers [bruvvers] get to") and suddenly there is laughter from what sounds like a half-dozen or so mixed voices (probably all Bryson). Kind of weird.

The opening credits are read by Bryson until she gets to Gilet's name and he says it, i.e., "read by Karen Bryson ... and Don Gilet." Gilet gets to read a little bit more in the closing credits. And in the department of feminism, why is Gilet's name before Bryson's on the cover?

I really enjoyed Smith's White Teeth when it was published, and may still get around to On Beauty. Mostly I'll read her because she loves libraries.

[One of Smith's narrative sections is "NW6." Here's a photo of Priory Road, London NW6, taken by Christine Matthews as part of the geograph.org.uk project and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

NW by Zadie Smith
Narrated by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet
Penguin Audio, 2012.10:58

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The problem with my life is that it was someone else's idea

Years ago (2006) I listened to Benjamin Alire Sáenz' Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood and found it a lyrical work of literature; later I learned that Sáenz is a poet. So when his Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe popped up on my reading radar (many YMA stickers [top to bottom: Printz, Stonewall, Belpré] from 2013), I knew that it was something I wanted to hear. It took me a while, but here we are.

It's 1987, Aristotle is an angry 15-year-old, the youngest (by a lot) child of working class parents, living in El Paso, Texas. He's a loner, but appreciates a friendly overture from Dante who offers to teach him how to swim one summer. Dante is an overly precocious boy close to his academic parents. Despite their differences, the boys have their solitariness in common along with their unusual names and Mexican heritage and they become good friends.

The book follows the boys over the next two years as their friendship waxes and wanes, as they work out their issues (distant Vietnam vet father, imprisoned brother, homosexuality) apart and together. Ari saves Dante's life, Dante gets gay-bashed and expresses his love for Ari. The narrative is poetic and descriptive, the author's love of the landscape (equally memorable in Sammy and Juliana) is beautifully expressed in his prose ("... the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky ...."). It's a book for the quiet reader, the one who is willing to stick with a slow-moving story where nothing much happens ... beyond the boys finding out who they are and what they'll do.

I liked this but these are two "sensitive" boys, who cry often and easily, and occasionally excessively. Dante's parents were remarkably accepting of a gay son. Hello ... AIDS? In the 1980s, it was the gay "plague;" Rock Hudson died in 1985 and 13-year-old Ryan White had been banned from school. I don't see how the novel's characters could not have known about the disease; surely some of Ari's discomfort with Dante's revelation would have come from AIDS, yet it is never mentioned.

The Broadway actor and composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda reads the novel in Ari's first person. He captures Ari's initial sense of I'm-pissed-at-everything with a slightly Latin sass, and when the text calls for Spanish names or phrases, he reads with an appropriate accent. I confess that Miranda's authentic Spanish was such that I could never rightly hear whether Ari's brother's name was Bernardo or Fernando, or something else. When Dante enters the novel, Miranda gives him a distinctly different voice, slightly higher and with Dante's annoying sense of knowing it all. The contrast sounds natural and works well.

Miranda voices the small cast of characters distinctly and then adds in a couple of vocal cameos with élan. A morning DJ and some chatty Mexican ladies made me smile. There's a teeny bit of singing (a phrase from Heart's Alone ... "You don't know how long ...") as well. These are all good things in my book of audiobook appreciation.

A bouncy rock-and-roll riff opens and closes the audiobook. But the generic female voice that does the credits over the music is so very neutral as to be deeply off-putting. "Why would I want to listen to this," might be an initial reaction. Followed by "Where do they find these people?"

I persevered, obviously. And I'm glad I did.

[Here are the original Aristotle and Dante. Aristotle's bust is a "copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) of a lost bronze sculpture by Lysippos." It's in the Louvre. Dante's portrait is by Botticelli and is in a private collection. Both were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Life is catastrophe

Donna Tartt does not have a webpage (and the site I linked to is out of date), which is kind of astonishing in this age. I approached The Goldfinch strategically; I'd been number one (suspended) on the hold list for awhile waiting for the right three weeks to listen because I knew I'd need every minute. (I find I wasn't as strategic in my current doorstop listening -- Middlemarch -- and as a result I'm going to be paying some overdues.) And, foolish me, I thought that those three weeks of one book would enable me to catch up on the blogging ... well, we know how well that turned out!

For any reader occupying the space beneath a rock, The Goldfinch is a 32+-hour bildungsroman of one Theo Decker, who loses his beloved mother in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and steals a petite painting by Carel Fabritius (who himself died in an explosion). Then, more acted upon than acting, he totes that painting from an Upper East Side apartment to an unfinished housing development in exurban Las Vegas, to a Greenwich Village townhouse, and finally to Amsterdam. Theo was possibly modeled on Charles Dickens' Pip, and like that boy he encounters a raft of memorable characters (and a girl who doesn't love him) who frighten him, amuse him, befriend him, support him, deceive him, and generally propel the grieving child into a stunted, drug-fueled, manipulative -- and finally, possibly, redeeming -- manhood. Tartt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Like her first book, The Secret History, it was absolutely compelling from the outset. Theo's fate is uncertain and it's easy to get invested in his future (and whether or not he has one); once he finds sanctuary with the kindly Village furniture restorer, Hobie, he manages to screw this up on his own, keeping the listener on tenterhooks. And when the larger-than-life Russian schoolfriend Boris (first encountered in Las Vegas) shows up again, with a crackpot plan that requires the painting, well, it's fairly suspenseful. On the other hand, once the novel finally gets to Amsterdam, I could not wait for it to be over. And there were still a good six to eight hours to go. I think there was a full disc (or more) devoted to Theo's feverish ravings in an Amsterdam hotel over Christmas. Or at least it felt like it. I had the same problem with The Secret History, it's almost like Tartt can't bring herself to finish so she drags out her story beyond its natural life.

David Pittu is the excellent narrator. I've only heard him read really ordinary children's books, so his work here is kind of revelatory. Unlike his listener, he never flags -- pacing the novel so that its sense of suspense is (almost) never released. He has a gravelly, adult voice and is telling Theo's first-person story from his adult perspective. Yet, at the beginning, he imbues his voice with an adolescent's delivery and all Theo's sadness -- which permeates this novel -- is clear in Pittu's reading.

Like its Dickensian inspiration, The Goldfinch's many characters are vivid and unforgettable and Pittu makes the most of them. Even when their appearances are brief, Pittu gives them a unique voice, authentic and interesting. No caricatures here. I particularly liked Boris (who could not like Boris?) with his Russian inflections, potty-mouth and overwhelming personality. Pittu's women sound natural, although -- with the exception of Theo's dad's blackjack-dealing girlfriend Xandra (and Theo makes a no-longer-remembered comment about her name) -- they are not the interesting people in this novel.

I will say that the music that underbeds the conclusion and the credits is a bit much. It sounds a bit like hackneyed, sweeping-epic movie music and in that vein kind of diminishes Theo's final statement about the power of art: "And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things and looked out for them and pulled them from the fire and sought them when they were lost and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers and the next." (I'm sure there is missing punctuation in that quote, but I transcribed this from the audio.)

Perhaps some found the metaphor of the chained goldfinch to be a little obvious, but I appreciated all the ways that Theo could not break from his past, from that life-changing event. Clinging to that painting, and more literally to the fact that he had that painting (for, of course, he couldn't hang it on the wall), redeems Theo in the end. Despite everything that has happened to him, and all that he brought upon himself, Theo goes on. Kind of like "The Goldfinch." Kind of like art.

And also, how cool is it that Tartt took as her polestar a real painting and had fictional things happen to it? That alone will win me over.

[I don't usually like to repeat images that are already on the book covers, but I want you to see the whole painting. When "The Goldfinch" is at home, it hangs in the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. This image is from the Web Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons.]

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Narrated by David Pittu
Hachette Audio, 2013.  32:29

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sweet dreams

Previous posts, the Nobel Prize (Pamuk) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Angelou); today, the National Book Award (NBA). The thoughtful, evocative, deceptively simple writer Jacqueline Woodson received the 2014 National Book Award for her poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming.

Thinking about this book so close to thinking about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (they were a month apart in the listening), I'm struck at the similarities of the childhoods of these two women. Their parents couldn't stay married, so each was sent to live (with beloved siblings) with their grandmothers in the rural South. Woodson's experiences are a good 30-40 years later, but the importance of these smart, independent women (the grandmothers) in the lives of these young writers-to-be can't be underestimated. It's clear their influence was felt long after the girls moved back to live with their mothers.

Woodson's experiences are written for younger readers, so her memoir -- which is provided in short, prose/poem-ish entries -- seems more internal than Angelou's. It's not so much what happened to me (although Woodson does provide the bare bones), but how it made me feel. And her feelings of confusion, separateness, deep love for her grandmother, loss at being separated from her (and at the death of her grandfather), glee at finding herself in exciting New York in the 1970s, wondering at her place in the world, along with the sheer pleasure of an ice cream cone on a warm summer day are all vividly and economically depicted in Woodson's prose, or is it poetry? (Since I only listened to this, I don't know how the entries appeared on the page. But Google Books shows me that they appear to be poems.)

More than Angelou, Woodson incorporates the events of in the great wide world into her poems, particularly the civil rights activities. She does this naturally, but I do get a slight sense of I'm writing for children and so must incorporate this here. I'm sure that -- based on the portrait she provides of her independent mother and grandmother -- there was political awareness in that household, but it does seem a little "lesson-ly." Of course, if the "lesson" intrigues a young reader, you can just put Rita Williams-Garcia or Christopher Paul Curtis into her hands.

While I appreciate a fine turn of phrase, it's hard to concentrate on these when you're listening ... unless you do a little rewind when something wonderful strikes your ears. I confess I didn't do this while listening, so my appreciation of the literary aspects of this book can't be shared. Let me just reproduce something cribbed from Google Books:

[from the page entitled "home"]

... Hall Street.
A front porch swing thirsty for oil.
A pot of azaleas blooming.
A pine tree.
Red dirt wafting up
around my mother's newly polished shoes.

Like Angelou before her, Woodson reads her own work. (Of the three Woodson books in this blog, all were read by others.) Despite my reservations about narrating authors, she is just fine at it. She doesn't have a particularly melodious voice, and certainly not the commanding delivery of Angelou, but her personal connection to the story is evident in her reading. She reads like she's reading poetry ... in that way that I've heard dozens of poets read: great use of the pause, but a tendency to draw out the vowels which I'm not crazy about. However, she resists that sing-song approach of many poets reading aloud. She's precise, like her poetry. And, yes, she does sing a little bit (although not "We Shall Overcome;" she reads that).

There's twangy, bluesy intro and outgo music to get you in the mood for those hot, humid South Carolina summers. In a swell finish, the audiobook ends with a final pluck and waa-waa echo of one guitar string. Now that's a thoughtful producer.

Now that it's January, the ALA Youth Media Awards predicting has begun. Brown Girl Dreaming is certain to show up, possibly more than once. It's what all the adult readers of literature for young people that I pay attention to are pegging for the Newbery Medal, and it will no doubt receive the Coretta Scott King as well. But what about the Sibert? The last book for young readers that won both the NBA and the Newbery: Louis Sachar's Holes (and that was 16 years ago).

[Although this particular red-dirt road is in Oklahoma, perhaps the landscape is similar to South Carolina? This photo was taken by Ks0stm and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Narrated by the author
Listening Library, 2014.  3:55