Friday, November 16, 2007

Coincidentally ...

So E.L. Konigsburg wrote one of the great books for children ever, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and she's still writing 40 years later. But, from the totally child-centered story that is Mixed-Up Files, she seems to be getting farther and farther away from actual children in her writing. Example A is the book I just finished listening to this morning: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. In the final analysis, I found this book to be about three women; the two boys it's ostensibly about merely play the role of deus ex machina (hey! I was an English major!)

Amadeo Kaplan and William Wilcox are helping William's mother, who works as an estate sale agent (after leaving her abusive husband). Mrs. Wilcox is currently at work at the house of former opera singer Aida Zender, a big woman with a bigger ego and big tastes. Mrs. Zender spent her professional years in Europe and her house is full of treasures. Amadeo -- who we know to be a boy who longs to find something undiscovered -- finds something amazing among her things: a drawing by Modigliani.

Now, life is a lot of coincidences, but the ones here strain belief: Amadeo's godfather is the director of the Sheboygan Museum of Art and is preparing the opening of an exhibit of Degenerate Art. Did you know the Nazis found Modigliani to be degenerate? (He was also a Jew, not a good combo ... but at least he was dead by the 1940s.) Amadeo does know this and contacts his godfather about the drawing that he's found. Just before the opening of the exhibit, Peter's father dies and his mother sends him a box of his father's writings, a memoir of how he made it out of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. Amazing! Peter's father's brother owned an art gallery in Amsterdam ... and owned the Modigliani. He traded the Modigliani to the Nazis in exchange for Peter's father's safe passage from Amsterdam. The brother ended up in a Nazi work camp wearing the pink triangle and was never heard from again. But it's Peter's mother -- not Peter -- who confronts Mrs. Zender to find out how the drawing came into her possession.

You could learn a lot in this slight book, but it all feels like a lecture. Certainly if your discussion of a title requires three links to Wikipedia, maybe there's just too much going on, so you have to edit by giving lectures instead of telling a story.

The audiobook isn't bad. Since there's so much detail in the plot, you really have to pay attention and there were times when I clearly hadn't been. William is constantly whispering to the "angel on his shoulder," so there must have been a reference to this early on, but I couldn't remember it. And to clarify in my own mind the details of the denouement, I confess: I took a look at the print version.

The actor Edward Herrman does the reading. He's pretty good ... in a lecture-y sort of way. He reads Amadeo with a bit too much wide-eyed innocence, but he handles those three adult women with aplomb. He's at his best, though, when reading Peter's father's memoir -- he reads with a plausible (to me) German (Dutch?) accent and invests real emotion in the telling. Recorded Books -- which generally adds no bells and/or whistles to its titles -- does a little fancy thing here: Amadeo reads the memoir out loud, but shortly after he begins, a little voice over creeps in and the narrator becomes Mr. Vanderwaal himself. It's a nice touch.

And here's a fun fact: In listening to both this and On the Road, mention of Beethoven's opera Fidelio (hey, here's another opportunity to Wikipedia!) comes up. How weird is that?

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