Thursday, May 28, 2009

Made in heaven

I was looking forward to Deborah Heiligman's biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith. I enjoy a Victorian love story, and this one seemed promising. I didn't know that Charles had made a scientist's list of pros and cons about marrying. I didn't know that he and Emma were first cousins. And I certainly didn't know that Emma had such a profound Christian faith that she feared eternal separation from Charles upon death. She would be waiting in Heaven, while the skeptic who developed the world-shattering theory that God did not create a static universe would be burning in Hell. As Heiligman asks, how could they possibly be a happy couple?

Yet, they evidently were, living what sounds like a somewhat contemporary life at their country home, Down House -- Dad working from home, Mom with a light domestic touch, the barely controlled chaos of a small army of children, and all that stuff that Darwin collected. They survived three of their ten children, and were most particularly affected by the loss of their daughter, Annie, who died at the age of 10. Charles was extremely conscientious about how and when he would publish his theory of natural selection, knowing the effect it might have, yet -- despite Emma's objections (and perhaps horror) -- he asked her to read and comment on his manuscript.

I had questions when I'd finished: Am I the only person who found it completely ironic that the agnostic Darwin is buried -- no doubt with great Christian pomp and circumstance -- at Westminster Abbey? Emma, wisely, took no part in that day's shenanigans. And whatever was physically wrong with Charles? It sounded to me like he had an extremely nervous tummy, but Heiligman doesn't provide any 20th century interpretations of his condition, or the cause of Annie's death or that of Emma's beloved sister, Fanny. I like to know that stuff.

Beyond these quibbles, though, I'm just not that crazy about the book. The premise is fascinating, but the day-to-day details just got to be a bit dull. (Hey, just like life!) Emma is pregnant, Charles is studying his barnacles, he tinkers with his theory, he discusses it with Emma or with his cadre of fellow skeptics. Then, tragedy strikes, everyone is sad for awhile, and then life goes on. I don't mean to be flippant about the death of a child, but I did get this feeling from listening to this book.

With her intense, yet quiet delivery, Rosalyn Landor reads the book with that English sang-froid that indicates tragedy with just a bit more of a quiver in the voice than an ordinary day. And I don't mean that as a criticism: Landor is English and so were Charles and Emma. Profound emotions are to be kept to oneself. I'm glad that Heiligman's scholarship gives us a chance to peek into their personal thoughts, but that doesn't make them any less English. Landor actually gives what felt like an accurate, subtle portrayal. It's not her fault that it all began to blend together.

What I most definitely do not like, though, is the technique I also heard in the Lincoln biography I recently listened to. Biographers are completely correct to incorporate their subject's actual words into their narrative. But audiobook narrators feel they have to distinguish these quotations with a [pause] change of speaking voice [pause] that is most awkward and distracting to listen to. I agree that the source of the words should be known, but I don't think this is the answer. Like many a cranky blogger, I offer no alternatives, but this method simply feels artificial.

It's good to see more nonfiction available in audio (although I think I've complained more often than praised), offering young scholars (or even just the mildly interested) the chance to research in an alternative media. There are actually two more nonfiction titles coming up on my listening list, and since I've read them both, I'm thinking they might be better suited to audio than Mr. Lincoln and Mr. and Mrs. Darwin: We Are the Ship and Your Own, Sylvia [Plath].

Valley boy

I just got back from a week's vacation road trip -- with a rented car so I could play CDs while cruising the California Coast. Like Halli Sveinsson of Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley, I've been on a journey. (Like Halli, I did get lost a few times, but that's probably because I was paying attention to the book rather than the route!). Halli is the younger son of the Sveinsson clan, one of twelve families that populate the Valley -- thanks to their ancestors who long ago put aside their differences in order to rid the Valley of the deadly Trows. The ancestors' cairns at the top of the mountains serve as the barrier that keeps the Valley safe: Those who dare to venture beyond them are doomed to die at the hands of the Trows ... or whatever evil beings lurk there. Because of the stories that Halli has grown up listening to, he knows that his ancestor, Svein Sveinsson, was the leader of the brave men who fought the Trows.

But Halli is restless, he's looking for adventure hoping to be his own hero, but all he manages to do is irritate all the other Sveinssons. At the annual gathering of the twelve families of the Valley, he accidentally creates his quest: He deliberately poisons (without killing) the son of the family Hakonsson; when the Hakonssons demand an explanation, Halli's uncle Broder is killed by Olaf Hakonsson. To keep the tentative peace of the Valley, Broder's murder goes unpunished, but Halli swears revenge. On his quest, and aided by a spunky heroine named Aud, he learns some surprising things about his own family as well as the other families of the Valley. As events spin beyond his control, Halli becomes a leader and discovers the secret of the Trows. In the end, Halli isn't sure who's a hero, or even what that means.

I found this to be a very sophisticated story, not for the casual listener (or reader). The ideas (what are stories, who are heroes) are complex, our hero is not terribly admirable, it's not a crackling adventure that goes from gasp to gasp. Stroud gives you many opportunities to pause and think at length about what has happened. The ending isn't particularly satisfying. In other words, it's not got Bartimaeus. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if there are many, many readers who aren't going to stick with it for the "good parts." And even the good parts aren't that thrilling. Face it, Halli is an antihero, and his story is a bit of a downer.

The audiobook is narrated by David Thorn. Each chapter of Halli's story begins with an installment of the saga of the great Svein Sveinsson. Thorn brings a Shakespearean gravitas to these portions of the book, his basso declaiming of Svein's saga seems utterly right. A listener has no difficulty imagining Thorn as the bard, given the seat of honor by the fire on a cold winter's night, regaling everyone in the household with Svein's tales of Nordic heroism and derring do. It's a wonderful performance.

But I didn't like Thorn as the narrator of the "contemporary" part of the novel, of Halli's story. The deliberateness with which he read Svein's story needs considerable spicing up for Halli's; there's a lot of exposition and we need something to sustain our interest. I craved variety and a bit more enthusiasm for Halli's adventures. There were places when I simply tuned out and lost track of what was going on. I found the ending confusing (the Trows are what?), and what should have been a surprising denoument just seemed to drag on.

Thorn would occasionally forget which time period he was in, and go for the bardic voice to tell Halli's story. He tripped up a few times when attempting to sustain vocal characterizations, and I heard lots of variation in Halli's voice: Sometimes he was childish and petulant, and others quite mature sounding.

I also found Thorn's English accent to be a bit of an impediment here: For the first disc, I thought Halli was Harley (and wondered what he was doing in a Norse-themed story). I didn't know the Trows weren't Trolls until I finished the book and checked out a review. I had difficulty parsing some of the other Nordic names, and I never did figure out the name of Halli's father, Arnkell? Ankell?

I'm not sure the reward here is worth the quest -- kind of like what Halli discovers. On the other hand, I'm interested in what happens next to Halli. Maybe those adventures (and they are adventures in my own mind, I don't know if Stroud is going to continue Halli's saga) are going to be the exciting ones!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Let her go!

I popped this book into my CD player (it won't transfer to my clunky computer for downloading into my bargain-brand MP3 player), feeling ready to dive into the way-back machine. Locked Inside was originally published in 2000, and with its plot reliance on a MMOG, I prepared for much hilarity at the "ancient" technology. Surprisingly, author Nancy Werlin created a wired protagonist whose online adventures sound fresh. (And the fact that I know the above acronym only proves that I'm a librarian and can find out stuff, because I have never played one EVER.)

Marnie Skyedottir is the orphaned child of a former gospel singer who changed her name, created a new spirituality and died in a plane crash, leaving Marnie rich, but lonely. She attends a girls prep school, but spends most of her time online playing Paleopolis (that MMOG), planning for the day she turns 21 when she can turn her back on her loving guardian, Max, and control her fortune. Recently in Paleopolis, her avatar has acquired a semi-stalker, an Elf. On a whim, Marnie contacts the Elf by email and he responds. Then Marnie learns that her time online is being monitored and her computer is removed so she can catch up on her schoolwork over spring break. A teacher, Leah Slaight, volunteers to tutor her. While driving back from a tense lunch with Leah, Marnie is attacked and wakes to find herself ... yes ... Locked Inside Leah's basement. Leah believes that she, too is a daughter of Skye, and she's not going to let Marnie go until Marnie agrees to acknowledge her.

Marnie effects an escape, but literally runs into the Elf as she scrambles up the basement stairs. The Elf had been worried when he didn't hear back from Marnie via email, and had tracked her to Leah's house. Leah panics and shoots the Elf in the leg, and now both of them are ... Locked Inside. During their captivity, Marnie discovers that her prison is not just a physical one, that her grief and loneliness have locked her emotions inside as well.

I believe I've said in this forum before that I'm generally not fond of Nancy Werlin's melodramatic stories. However, I very much enjoyed the audio version of The Rules of Survival, so I believe I listened with an open mind. I liked the concept of this story, but it did get draggy both during and after their incarceration with the philosophical digressions of what locked inside really means. Ultimately, Locked Inside just didn't transport me like Rules did. And, I have to say, I think it was the narrator, Emily Durante.

Durante reads the narrative (non-dialog) portions of the book in a mechanical way that I found myself snidely imitating when it got really obvious. This is a complete shame, because she is just excellent at creating characters. When speaking, everyone -- without exception -- sounds like a real person talking. Gender or age don't matter. She was really engaging. But then we would head into long sections of text and she'd revert to that automaton delivery. It was very disconcerting and kept taking me in and out of the story.

I also heard a number of pronunciation errors that occasionally gave me the impression that the first time she saw the book was when she sat down in front of the microphone. I'm still chortling over one of them. Since I don't have a copy of the book to refer to, I can't say for sure that this was not a choice by the author/narrator, but it sure sounded like a clunker to me. How do you pronounce [Gustave] Flaubert? Well, Durante said it phonetically, which stopped me dead in my puttering-around-the-house tracks and racing for the player so I could hear it again. Could she have possibly said Flow-bert? Yes, she did. Am I being a snob? Perhaps, but the editor should have caught that one.

We only have one copy of this book in our system, and it only checked out twice last year. Maybe it's more dated than I think. Of course, it could quite possibly be that old-fashioned cover. And Marnie is supposed to be Goth-y, this girl just looks like a teenager who isn't getting enough sleep.

You can't be too rich or too thin

There was a senior in my college dorm when I was a sophomore who was painfully skinny and would disappear periodically, but (I am old enough that) I had never heard of anorexia nervosa. I have no recollection of her in an eating situation. And, while I know a little bit more about the condition now, nothing I know prepared me for Laurie Halse Anderson's terrifying Wintergirls. Before the start of this novel, Lia passed out at the wheel of a car and -- her condition finally detected -- ended up in a residential treatment center. Her best friend, and co-dependent anorexic, Cassie shuns her following her release. One night, Lia gets call after call (33 in all) from Cassie which she ignores. The next day, Lia learns that Cassie died in a cheap dive hotel room, all alone.

Thus, Lia's descent begins. Those around her believe her to be recovered from her eating disorder, but -- since we are privy to her thoughts -- she's only doing a terrific job of hiding it. (If anything, that is my complaint about the story ... how could all of the adults not see?) Now, Lia feels haunted by Cassie -- Lia witnesses her getting up out of her coffin -- and more in need of the control that not eating and cutting afford her. She spirals down until her young stepsister Emma sees her nude and with blood running down her body. At this final crisis, Lia finds herself at the hotel where Cassie died, and she makes a decision to live.

This is riveting stuff! One of those books where you talk back: Lia, what are you doing? It seemed utterly authentic; I wonder if a teen with anorexia would find it so (if she could read it and acknowledge its message). I think this kind of emotionally raw book is so much more powerful when you hear the voice in your ears, and the narrator, Jeannie Stith, portrays Lia beautifully. She reads in a "good girl" voice that can quickly evolve into a crafty self-confidence in her ability to fool the fools around her or -- equally fast -- deteriorate into a terrified fear and craziness.

Alongside Stith's great performance, though, I've got to discuss the production side of the audiobook. Anderson's text is filled with visual cues about Lia. There are cross-outs and bits that are set aside in another type size. The chapter numbers are the same format as Lia recitation of her weight. For example: In chapter 013.00, Lia says "At 095.00, I will soar." There are parenthetical references to the calories of the food she eats: I take a whole wheat roll (96) out of the basket, and two buttery Brussels sprouts (35) ...."

The audio publisher (correctly) knew they needed to somehow distinguish these cues aurally. But, what they did proved only distracting, not enhancing. There is a muffled tone to indicate the words in a different type size, Lia whispers the calories in a quick tone of aside, and the voice of Cassie (not distinguished in the text) is given an odd, "ghostly" reverberation. The chapter/weight numbers just confused me (and may have confused me while reading ... although I think I'm likely to skip over the chapter numbers when reading ... or suddenly notice them some distance into the book), since I wondered about whether the two numbers were going to converge in some way.

But what I particularly didn't like was the sound chosen to indicate the cross-outs: A non-musical tone is heard while Lia is saying the words that are crossed out in the text. Initially, I thought this was an error of some kind; when it turned up again (and again), I realized that it was deliberate. At this point, I realized that something was different about those words, but I still wanted to figure out what it was exactly. Once I held a copy of the book in my hands, it became clear: the tone is the line crossing out the words. Was this too many steps? Will other listeners go to the trouble to figure it out, or will they just accept it and keep listening? Or, horrors! Stop listening?

So, that leads me to wonder if a book that relies so much on visual clues should be an audiobook. (See my previous posting on the Lincoln "photobiography" with no photos.) I know the people at Brilliance Audio worked hard to re-create this book for listening, and I appreciate that effort. It is almost like there were so many different things that they had to do that the combination of all the elements proved too much. Yet, not listening would deprive you of Stith's masterful portrayal of Lia. Maybe, you should ignore me and listen for yourself.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Once, dear children, Lincoln had his own birthday ...

In this 200th year of his birth, we've seen a lot of books about Abraham Lincoln; the facts of his life aren't really history anymore, they are almost legend (there are 37 books for youth in my library's catalog and I'll bet most of them don't skim beyond the surface of the log cabin, Gettysburg and the assassination). I learned a lot in reading Candace Fleming's The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. Joining 2009's Lincoln-iana is the audio version of Russell Freedman's 1988 Newbery-Award winning Lincoln: A Photobiography.

Freedman's skill as a writer of nonfiction for children is how he takes the complex ideas and boils them down to what you need to know, and then delivers those ideas in simple, yet informative prose. In his books that I've read, he's also a master at the picture caption. In this biography, we get the legend augmented by some less well-known facts: Lincoln suffered from depression, he had a high, reedy voice, no one he knew ever called him Abe.

This audiobook is narrated by Robert Petkoff. I think he reads this way too fast, and too precisely. If he weren't reading so quickly, it wouldn't sound like he was pronouncing each and every word with perfect diction. This sounds somewhat artificial and is tiring to listen to. And, I didn't like the other choice he made either: Freedman inserts a number of quotations into the text, and Petkoff alters his voice -- usually deeper and more "statesmen-like" -- when he reaches these places in the narrative. More artificiality. He does make a consistent effort to voice Lincoln in the high, reedy speaking voice Freedman tells us was the president's.

A brief interview with Russell Freedman follows the audiobook, and I always appreciate this glimpse into the writer's process. Alas, the first few questions of the interview were about how Freedman uses photos (or other illustrations) in his nonfiction. Which only points out the sad lack of photographs in this medium. The audiobook includes an "Enhanced CD" of the book's photographs which I could not make work in my computer. Thus I missed the photos even more.

I'm glad to see more nonfiction available in audio format. (I've listened to several adult literary nonfiction and find it much easier than reading them.) But, why does a book that has the word "photo" in the title leap out as a candidate for audio interpretation? I suspect it was more the timely subject of the biography that led to this particular title. Fortunately, there are a few more titles in the pipeline that might be more listen-able: Lincoln's fellow bicentenarian (and actual littermate, as they were born on the very same day!) Charles Darwin, for example.

Sticky wicket

Wendelin Van Draanen writes well for that difficult age: 3rd and 4th graders who have gone beyond the easy stuff, and are looking for funny, interesting stories. I like her heroes Sammy Keyes and the Shredderman. Not so much her latest: Dave Sanchez and his talking gecko, Sticky.

In Villain's Lair, the first episode in The Gecko and Sticky (the title makes sense once you finish the book), Sticky is rescued from a cat by Dave, a responsible 13-year-old. Once Sticky gets to trust Dave, he reveals his secret: He has escaped from the nefarious villain, Damien Black, who transformed Sticky into a talking gecko when he located a magical Aztec gold wristband and its accompanying ingots that -- when locked together -- give the wearer superpowers. Sticky's got the armband, and he convinces Dave to help him locate the ingots in Black's creepy house located on the edge of town. In a series of close calls (including an encounter with a hungry Komodo dragon), some snappy repartee and vocabulary lessons worthy of Lemony Snicket, Dave grabs one ingot. (I won't spoil it by saying which one.)

Dave's a good kid, and I enjoy the way he's casually Latino (just like Marcelo ... although his father as an affirmative-action candidate figures somewhat in the plot of Stork's novel). But Sticky sounds like Frito Bandito and that bugged me a lot! Adding insult to injury, there's a mariachi band comprised of three idiots. Lee-zard [lizard] ... ¡Ay caramba! ... Sí señor. Can you say ick? I don't think that narrator Marc Cashman is the voice behind that book trailer I linked to in the previous paragraph, but he sure took his cue from it.

Do kids say ick, though? Or do they find it funny? Or are the Latino kids just laughing along even though it makes them feel icky? If yes to the last question, Sticky needs to change his accent!

I also found the plotting to be just a little confusing for an audiobook: Van Draanen does a little bit of back-and-forth in the time stream, and Chapter 1 plops us feet first into the stinky, swampy cave inside the villain's lair. I'm sure I'm not the only person who went, huh? When I finished the book, I went back and listened to the beginning to get things straight in my head. When I do that, I know I'd rather be reading the book, so I can flip back at will.

On the other hand, there's a lot of excess language in this story -- the author creates her literary atmosphere by never using one adjective when she can use three -- and these probably better achieve the desired effect when read aloud.

It is a fun, wacky adventure for elementary school boys. But, I would want to be very careful into whose hands I put it.

Reality bites

The great listener Mary Burkey posted a brief review of Marcelo in the Real World on her Audiobooker blog, and I knew I had to give it my ears. This book -- by a young adult author I'd never heard of, Francisco X. Stork -- tells the story of 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval. Marcelo tells people (when they ask) that he has Asperger's Syndrome. He attends a special school, his beloved Paterson, where he feels a particular affinity for the Haflinger therapy ponies. He's looking forward to the coming summer, where he'll care full time for the beasts.

Then his father -- a corporate attorney with an office in downtown Boston -- drops a bombshell. Arturo proposes that Marcelo spend the summer working in the mailroom of the law office. If he is successful there -- if he does the work as defined by his father and Jasmine, the young woman running the mailroom -- he won't have to spend his senior year mainstreamed in public school. If he chooses to spend the summer at Paterson, he will have to go to public school in the fall. Marcelo feels like he has no choice, and is thrust into the office politics of a cutthroat law firm where nothing is black and white. Yet, despite (or perhaps because?) of his limited social skills, he effects positive change at the firm while remaining true to himself, and when the summer is over, Marcelo has a plan for the rest of his life in the real world.

This was a compelling and -- in places -- almost suspenseful story, where we see the world from this (un)reliable narrator who cannot tell a lie, who fears the world that he's forced into, yet who emerges triumphant -- although certainly changed -- by the end of his summer. Marcelo's voice is distancing, yet sympathetic. Few would read this story and not feel that he has made the right decision, even though he is telling us his story. There is a great deal of comfort in the (somewhat fairytale-like) outcome.

Mary Burkey is right that you want to slow down and listen to Marcelo, and that an audio version enables you to do this. Lincoln Hoppe gives a lovely, subtle performance: Beginning with a stiff formal reading, he slowly relaxes and slightly emotes as Marcelo learns to bend and adapt to the complexities of a world where motives are hidden and the truth is not simple. It was a pleasure to listen to this.

A few quibbles: Occasionally laziness was audible as Hoppe neglected to change character voices during conversations. I also wanted him to drink more water as his voice would start to sound gluey. He didn't seem particularly comfortable when he was asked to speak Spanish.

On the whole, though, a story that translates well to audio. I haven't listened to the audio version of The London Eye Mystery, but I just loved Jeff Woodman's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. What is it about first-person narrators with autism disorders? Why do we enjoy them so much?