Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Play ball!

I've been harsh on nonfiction audio lately, I suppose because its production mostly seems so academic. So ... good for you. Generally (yes, I'm generalizing here), nonfiction lacks a compelling forward momentum that a plotted story has, and which can work so well on audio. I also think that the readers I've heard lately take an overly serious approach -- using their "this-is-important" voices. But Dion Graham rejects this technique in his narration of Kadir Nelson's Coretta Scott King Award-winning We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (gosh, I just love that image of Josh Gibson). Graham -- to use that overly trite phrase -- brings Nelson's "literary nonfiction," and, as importantly, the era it describes, alive (ooh, too many commas, sorry).

In We Are the Ship, Nelson's unnamed narrator tells us about Negro League baseball in a natural, emotive account that delivers the facts in a readable, accessible way. Told thematically, not chronologically, in chapters called "innings," we learn about its origins, understand its context in racially segregated America, meet the players, and hear the stories of courage, tragedy and triumph. The stunning illustrations evoke a beautiful summer's day of baseball, played by strong, handsome, and strikingly black men. And by that statement, I mean that Nelson's portraits are colored in a brown/black so rich, so deep, so dense that you just want to keep looking. I think they'd be equally fabulous outside of a book ... hey, there's a traveling exhibit of the paintings.

So, if you don't have the paintings, is the book as meaningful? While I wouldn't say that narrator Dion Graham replaces the illustrations, he serves a similar function: Enhancing the text in a way that your understanding and appreciation of the story are increased. Graham is terrific. I first heard him read What is the What (before I figured out book covers!), and have only now figured out that I watched him on The Wire. He's an immensely talented voice actor.

His African American phrasings here are perfect. His deep voice seems confiding, like he and I are sitting in the dugout watching the game unfold and he's quietly telling you the story over the course of the afternoon. He's almost like a great play-by-play announcer (or maybe he's the color commentator). Graham creates tension as well as sadness with his voice, and he finds the humor there as well. This audiobook was over quickly (it's under two hours), and I savored every moment.

Kadir Nelson reads his own afterword, and he participates in a short interview at the end of the audiobook. He seemed a little stiff, but I was glad to hear from him. I wish the publisher would identify the interviewer, but that's a small quibble.

The audiobook includes a disc that's a slideshow of the book's illustrations. (Unlike the Lincoln photobiography, I got this one to work in my computer.) While We Are the Ship's narrative doesn't refer to the illustrations; Hank Aaron's forward, Nelson's afterword and the interview all mention the paintings, so I think there's a place for this disc in the audiobook. I didn't miss the paintings while listening, but -- unlike the Lincoln biography -- I had already seen them. So, is it fair of me not to gripe about this illustrative work converted to aural medium only, while complaining about it in the Lincoln book?

It's probably not fair. But this book is also elevated by Graham's superior performance.

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