Saturday, December 8, 2007

Monkey business

Frances Robinson fantasizes about romance and marriage with Johnny Scopes in 1920s Tennessee. Frances is 15 and Johnny is 24, and I suppose in the 1920s it was not unheard of for 15-year-olds to think about marriage. However, in the story I'm listening to now, it just gave me a big ick.

Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial is historical fiction. Both Scopes and Frances are real people, although I think the one-sided romance is an invention. (I haven't reached the end where an author's note relates some information about Frances.) Told from Frances' perspective, I learned a couple things: A group of Dayton, TN businessmen created the case in order to bring attention and commerce to their small town. This strategy backfired in a big way when the journalist H.L. Mencken came to Dayton to cover the story. Mencken was well-known for his biting commentary on people and institutions he considered ridiculous, and -- in Dayton, he had a field day. Soon, everyone believed Dayton and Daytonians to be ignorant, Bible-thumping yohoos.

In the novel, Frances' love for Johnny Scopes and encounters with Mencken cause her to reconsider her family's literal interpretation of the Bible, and her father's manipulation of Scopes for his own ends. It's an interesting approach to the standard "I'm growing up and away from my family" plot line of teen fiction, but the seriousness that she brings to her "future" with John Scopes seemed so tacked on to the story, that I had difficulty with the entire novel. Plus, I read this book about a year and a half ago, and it's just as dull this time as I found it then.

The reader is Ashley Albert, and she does a perky Southern accent for Frances and the other denizens of Dayton. Evidently, she was part of the cast of the MTV show Daria -- something that is just not part of my reality, although the younger members of my committee say that they recognize her voice. She's not terribly successful at voicing some of the characters, and I finally decided (having finished the book between the beginning of this post and its end) that it's simply inexperience.

Some readers think that they have to lay on the characters -- each one different -- in order for we (I guess it should be us) listeners to keep everybody clear. But, in this audiobook, Albert doesn't do a thing with the pivotal character of Mencken. She doesn't have him talk Bal'more; he isn't in a lower register; he isn't growling, or nasal, or shouting (all techniques for male characters I have heard) -- yet I was never in doubt about when he was speaking and when the speaker changed to someone else. I believe she could have just read nearly everyone this way and I would have accepted it more than what she did choose -- interchangeable Southern accents for many of the characters, and a very shaky British accent for Scopes' father.

What we will call a fine freshman effort, but to me, not among the Select. I think I said this back when I was blogging about The Loud Silence of Francine Green ... the narrator shows promise and I want to hear her again.

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