Friday, April 23, 2010

The brotherhood of the traveling ...

The New York Times (October 23, 1908) thinks one should enjoy The Wind in the Willows in private: "There are certain books which are nearly always read furtively -- at most, two congenial and properly grown-up souls may pour over their unexpurgated treasures in secret and behind locked doors, far away from a solemnly disapproving world. It would not do at all to give a list of these books ... It is necessary to be a bit cryptic, for if Mr. Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" (Scribner's, $1.50) should fall into the wrong hands it might suffer great indignities." (Among the many amusing things about this review [retrieved from ProQuest] is that it is printed in the same column as a book featuring a baccalaureate essay at Princeton University by none other than Woodrow Wilson, as well as a biography of Abraham Lincoln, both of which are long forgotten.)

Well, it just doesn't get much better than this (such a relief after the previous listen). I don't remember this book at all (beyond this cover) from my childhood, but what a joy it is. I was giggling aloud all the time I listened. Not much happens in the bucolic setting surrounded by the Wild Wood: Mole and Ratty become friends, Mr. Toad goes a bit batty over automobiles (poop-poop!), wise Badger steps in to help out and soon all is aright again in the world. The intervention by Toad's friends (and its consequences) to rid him of his obsession with the internal combustion engine might well be the funniest thing I've ever read -- with eyes or ears.

The English playwright, essayist, actor, comedian (and many other things besides, no doubt) Alan Bennett reads the book. Evidently, Mr. Bennett (who has declined a knighthood!) wrote and acted (as Mole) in a stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows in the 1990s at the National Theatre, which was subsequently made into an animated film. He clearly has some love for this story, and it shows in his narration.

Despite a significant number of "mouth sounds" (loud inhales, lip smacks, etc.) and a strange buzzing interference that occurred in the version I downloaded, Bennett is really terrific. He gives Toad a missing "r" sound that makes him sound even more tut-tut, noblesse-oblige than just simply reading in a straight English accent. Badger is a wonder: a deep, working class voice that brooks no nonsense from the hoity-toity Mr. Toad. Mole is the innocent wanderer and Ratty's little ditty about messing around in boats is worth treasuring as well. Bennett's got a bit of a high quaver in his speaking voice that really adds to the storytelling. It's got an old-fashioned sweetness that places him neatly in this little corner of rural England.

Among the seven downloadable choices for this title (an embarrassment of riches) was the dramatized adaptation by Bennett. Well, I couldn't tell (from the somewhat uninformative "cataloging") if it was a "full cast" audiobook, or the play, so I made the conservative choice. And the right one I think. You'll want to listen to this one too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Poor little rich girl

The cover of the version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess that I chose to download was all fuzzy, so I chose this cover (not all that easy to find, and this was courtesy of someone on Amazon who is trying to sell it) because this edition is the one that I own and still treasure. I don't own very many books from my childhood, but this novel made a remarkable impression on me.

Listening to it as an adult, I can just feel my nine-year-old tension of knowing that Sara Crewe's rescuers were right next door ... but they didn't KNOW IT! The suspense surely must have killed me. A Little Princess is the story of Sara Crewe, whose short life is filled with so much: loving father, precious belongings, affectionate and admiring friends, then utter loss and deprivation -- which she endures knowing that others are worse off than she, and finally, a new loving, secure home. (Let's just not think about the Africans who were no doubt dying right and left in her father's diamond mines.)

Yes, this is an entirely satisfying girly novel for those of us who love stories of good girls who ultimately triumph. Yes, Sara is occasionally quite ickily sweet-natured, but she is almost mistress of her own fate. She carries on in spite of adversity, she's intelligent and a loyal friend. I love her, just as Ermengarde and Becky do.

It's a good thing that I already loved Sara Crewe and her story before plugging in my headphones, because this audiobook was truly awful. There were two to choose from via Library 2Go (my library's downloadable service), and I have no idea why I selected the one narrated by Rebecca Burns. Was it because it was 90 minutes shorter? That I hadn't heard of the publisher (Sound Room Publishers: this web address links you very quickly to Playaway, with not enough time to read a tantalizing page of ... ?) of the one I didn't select? (I'm not going to say the name of the publisher of the one I did listen to because it was so very bad, although they evidently publish a series of audiobooks under the imprint "unabridged classics.")

Burns reads utterly without investment or interest in Sara's story. Each sentence sounds exactly the same as the one before it. There is no building of tension. Sara feels no sadness or fear. The words are read as if she were reading a newspaper. There are a raft of interesting characters in this novel (Miss Minchin, her ineffectual sister Amelia, the Lascar Ram Dass, excitable Lottie, mean girl Lavinia, simple-minded but loving Ermengarde, the cranky cook, the downtrodden Becky, I could go on); meaty characters that most voice actors would love to chew on, and Burns does nothing beyond raising the register and plaintiveness of her voice for Sara and speaking sharply as Miss Minchin. It was dull as ... well, I'm not sure I've ever listened to anything quite so dull. And so I'm not going to say anything more about it.

This book review by A.S. Byatt tells me that Mrs. Burnett led quite an interesting life and who perhaps revised her own childhood in later years so that it reflected that experienced by Sara Crewe (following her return to her rightful place in the universe). And because we just can't have enough sequels, the cheerful Hilary McKay has imagined the world of Miss Minchin's after Sara Crewe escaped in a recently published novel, Wishing for Tomorrow (which desperately needs a new title). I don't need to know what happens to Ermengarde, Sara's fate is enough for me. [Ooh, but Philip Reeve liked it, and I like Philip Reeve!]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Eye of newt and toe of frog

I think E.L.Konigsburg writes the most intriguing titles in the world of children's literature -- nearly all of them make you want to open up the book and see what's inside. That's why I picked Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth for a quick listen. Elizabeth (she's the one on the left) has recently moved to a small, New York City commuter town and is having difficulty making friends. On her way to school on Halloween -- dressed in last year's Pilgrim costume -- she meets Jennifer. Jennifer tells Elizabeth that she's a witch -- a year-round witch, not just for Halloween. The two girls decide to go trick-or-treating together and Elizabeth witnesses Jennifer's witchcraft first hand: She manages to convince the adults at every house they visit that she's not getting much candy and so they give her twice as much. Mightily impressed, Elizabeth agrees to become Jennifer's apprentice witch.

During the remainder of the school year, Jennifer sets tasks for Elizabeth that she works very hard to complete -- tasks such as eating raw eggs, no candy over Christmas, don't make phone calls. The girls' goal is to prepare a flying ointment, but ultimately they have a falling out over a key ingredient. As Elizabeth figures out where Jennifer's "witchiness" comes from, the two girls reconnect; the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This is Konigsburg's first novel, and it is pretty masterful in its brevity. The audiobook is just a little over two hours long. Not a word is wasted, yet the two girls' characters and their relationships with others in the novel are crystal clear. It's very clearly set in the 1960s, but it doesn't feel dated at all. The only thing that's really important is the friendship of those two lonely girls.

A new-to-me narrator, Carol Jordan Stewart, read the novel. She reads the first-person narration with a slight bit of youthfulness in her voice, nothing faked. I really enjoyed her characterization of the mostly silent Jennifer: She has a low, quiet voice that she uses sparingly but with confidence and authority. You can really understand Elizabeth's attraction to Jennifer's exoticism by listening to that voice.

Newbery watchers know that this is the only time in nearly 90 years that an author has won both the actual medal (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) and an honor (Jennifer, Hecate ... ) in the same year: 1968. (There was one year when one author won two honors: 1954 -- Meindert Dejong.) Publication schedules must be quite different now, but even if an author had two books published in the same year would this ever happen again?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Joustings

I am a big fan of Cornelia Funke -- ever since The Magic Thief (even though she took a bit of a tumble in my estimation with Inkdeath), so I was glad to give a listen to Igraine the Brave.

Igraine is the daughter of the great magicians Sir Lamorak and the Fair Melisande. Unlike her older brother Albert, Igraine doesn't want to become a magician. She'd rather be out on the tilt, squiring a noble knight. The rest of the family tolerates Igraine, but they turn to her for help when the evil Osmund the Greedy attempts to storm Castle Pimpernel to steal the books of magic. Unfortunately, Igraine's parents are ... ahem ... somewhat indisposed (I won't spoil it for my younger readers!), so it's courage and the rules of chivalry that may help to save the day.

A young actress with the delicious name of Xanthe Elbrick reads this novel. Evidently, she was in the Broadway version of an English musical called Coram Boy (based on a book of the same name by Jamila Gavin that I liked a whole lot), and was nominated for a Tony Award. She has a lovely speaking voice, slightly husky and entirely pleasant to listen to. She reads Igraine with just the right amount of innocent pluck and tween enthusiasm. There are a number of other enjoyable vocal characters created by Elbrick: a plodding, loyal servant, a friendly giant, the mustache-twirling Osmund and his scarily evil henchman, the Spiky Knight. Older brother and know-it-all Albert is also portrayed with honesty and affection.

Elbrick makes a big change when she voices the story's sort-of hero: The Sorrowful Knight of the Mount of Tears. Unlike everyone else in the story, he speaks with American-accented English. At first I was taken aback, but then I grew to like it. It can be justified (barely): The Knight had sequestered himself away from the world once he lost his honor, could he now sound so very different than all others in the kingdom? I think I enjoyed the sound of Elbrick's voice in that low-register American accent enough to forgive her the mostly inexplicable choice to voice him that way.

Funke's newest book, Reckless, will be published early this fall. Yikes! It's going to be a busy couple of weeks: Mockingjay, Reckless, and Monsters of Men! Who's going to have time to listen to anything?

On the sixth day ...

Another book mysteriously missing from my childhood (or maybe I should just deal with the fact that I simply don't remember it): The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright. [And now for something completely different: Here's absolutely everything you'd like to know about her maternal uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright.] I was a complete New-York-ophile from the moment I first visited the city when I was 8 years old (my mother claims I said how excited I was to be back in the city as we were leaving Central Park), I would have loved the exotic adventures of the Melendy siblings.

After bemoaning yet another dreary Saturday with nothing to do ("I'm so bored") younger sister Randy (Miranda) has the brain wave that the sibs will pool their allowance each week (a whopping 50¢) and send one of them off on a solo Saturday adventure. Randy visits an art gallery to see some French paintings. Older brother Rush goes to see Siegfried at the opera (which is described with such boyish attention to the exciting bits that I could almost envision a modern-day video gamehound wanting to see it ... almost!), while oldest sister Mona has a "day of beauty." Even six-year-old Oliver saves his money and sneaks off to the circus. The glorious freedom the Melendys revel in is absolutely delicious.

An actress and teacher named Pamela Dillman reads The Saturdays. She captures the youthful spirits of the Melendys without adopting childish tones. Each of the four sounds unique, although Mona and Randy are occasionally indistinguishable (which ultimately doesn't matter because the author does a good job of keeping the dialog straight). Dillman also has an opportunity to branch out a little accent-wise with a garrilous New Yawker hairdresser, a friendly Irish cop, and the elegant, French-tinged Mrs. Oliphant, who steps in at the end of the novel to save the Melendys' summer.

This is another one of the books I picked up inspired by Fuse No. 8's Top 100 Children's Novels, coming in at number 51. One of the many impressive things about Fuse's exceedingly impressive effort is the appearance of the original covers. I liked this one for The Saturdays.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You'll spoil your supper

The Candy Shop War snuck up on me. I was prepared for [sigh] another middle-grade too-long fantasy with all the usual suspects (children with untested magic powers, villains intent on world domination, absent parents, bizarre creatures, etc.), instead I enjoyed a funny, adventurous riff on "don't take candy from strangers."

Four 10-year-olds (that's refreshing too, this age seems underrepresented in kid lit lately) offer to help out the kindly Belinda White, owner of the Sweet Tooth Ice Cream and Candy Shoppe, newly opened in Colson, California. In exchange for their help, she hands out free candy. Not only is this candy good, it enables them to fly. It helps them exact revenge on the school bullies. When adults eat it, they forget just about everything but their desire for more. Mrs. White promises the four all sorts of superpower-producing candy, if only they will do just a few more things for her -- jobs like breaking and entering, stealing, wiping someone's memories, even an exhumation. Nate, Pigeon, Summer and Trevor are soon in so deep, they can't figure out how to dig out.

Fortunately, in Brandon Mull's novel, there is one adult who is able to withstand the pleasures of Mrs. White's white fudge; but in the end even craggy magicians' enforcer John Dart can't come to their rescue. Nate travels back and forth in time to come up with the ingenious solution to defeat Mrs. White and rescue all his friends, just in the nick of time.

This novel takes off quickly (just like the four friends after eating some of those gravity-defying moon rocks) and pretty much doesn't let up for 10 hours. I didn't feel hammered by the nonstop action (although there was some kid-friendly grossology I could have done without), mostly because there was some wit and intelligence in the story as well. Nate's defeat of Mrs. White's megalomaniacal dreams was particularly clever ... I didn't see it coming!

The prologue of the novel is a tad confusing. It introduces the aforementioned John Dart, but all the other clues are really obscure. Dart doesn't show up again until the novel proper is quite far along (by which time you've forgotten whatever you learned in the prologue). I went back and listened to the prologue again once I'd finished the book, and -- in my opinion -- the book would have been fine without it.

The reader, Emily Janice Card, does a good job of keeping the complex story humming along. Despite the large cast of characters and the many, many things that happen to them during the story, I was never lost or confused (once the metaphorical white fudge kicked in and I managed to forget the prologue). Toward the end of the novel, our four heroes are scattered all over town -- in the clutches of various villains -- and Card neatly keeps the balls up in the air. I think I may have heard her narrate a brief section of Ender's Game a year or so ago, and I liked her work there. (And her father is Orson Scott Card [scroll to near the end].) The audiobook includes some fun music, appropriate to the nonstop nature of the novel.

This being children's literature, the author has promised a sequel, and a movie is "in development." (Actually, the entire time I was listening I was thinking that it had movie written all over it.) More important than any these sidebars: Here is a good, hefty book that you can safely put into the hands of voracious young readers. An excellent choice for that all-ages car trip as well!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Joined at the hip

Following on the heels of The Borrowers in my headphones is another of Fuse No. 8's Top 100 Children's Novels (number 70), but this one I read for the first time: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace. Here we are introduced to the two little girls Betsy and Tacy, who meet right around the turn of the 20th century when they are five years old, and grow up together in the small town of Deep Valley, Minnesota over the course of 10 books.

The stories are linked, but episodic, making them perfect for a read-aloud bedtime. Betsy and Tacy go to school, explore their neighborhood, experience some losses and joys, and make a new friend. The book is chock full of creative play (let's sell sand, let's pretend we're traveling to Milwaukie, let's fly to the clouds). My favorite was when the girls played dress-up and went calling -- using Betsy's mother's calling cards. Their neighbor, Mrs. Benson, invites them in and serves them a drink fondly remembered from my own childhood, cambric tea.

Much as I enjoyed this, unlike the legions of these books' loyal fans (read a few quotes from some of the more well-known ones here) , I don't need to read another one -- at least not without a child nearby. They are sweet, very girly, and -- fan of both historical fiction and gentle teen romances that I was as a child -- I have no idea how they passed me by. So, I'm glad to have had the taste at this late date.

The audiobook is read by Sutton Foster, a stage actress and singer (and winner of a Tony Award for her performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie [loved the movie]). Foster brings a youthful innocence to her narration, never stooping to sound like a five-year-old, but definitely using her voice to demonstrate the wonder and enthusiasm that Betsy and Tacy have for their ever-widening world. It's really a pretty subtle performance, while entirely accessible for young listeners. There's cheerful music at the beginning and end of each disc (all two of them) that adds flavor to the story as well.

Like good library patrons, they don't steal, they borrow

A basic Google search for norton borrowers brings up two academic papers (neither of which is completely available online ... those pesky academics!) in the first 50 results: "Mary Norton's 'Borrowers' Series and the Myth of the Paternalistic Past," "Mixed Messages: The Problem of Class in Mary Norton's Borrowers Series;" as well as a blog post from the Oxford University Press that ends with the statement that the novel can be interpreted as an allegory of the Holocaust (although this post also equates the Borrowers' utter dependence on their "human bean" hosts to the relationship between small children and adults, which I can see young readers identifying with). I then admit to briefly perusing the academic database JSTOR for additional ridiculousness and located an article from the October 1968 issue of The British Medical Journal comparing the Borrowers (themselves, not the book) to cancer (which you can read on the Journal's website simply by registering). People, people, please! The Borrowers is a book for children. Can we simply enjoy it for what it is?

What I most enjoyed in this 50+-year-old tale of the tiny family of Pod, Homily and daughter Arrietty living under the kitchen floorboards of a creaky old English mansion almost passed me by. Once the Clock family (so named because the opening by which they leave their home and venture into the house proper to do their borrowing is next to the big grandfather clock in the front hall) is exposed and the ratcatcher is smoking them out, the story -- as told by Mrs. May, the now-grown-up sister of the boy who discovered them -- ends ("he never saw them again"). The young girl, Kate -- who (in a slightly creaky framing device) is hearing the story from Mrs. May -- is frustrated by the lack of resolution, but Mrs. May tells her (I'm paraphrasing here) that stories don't have endings. I liked that.

Was author Mary Norton the first to imagine little creatures living amongst us? Little creatures (not necessarily human) who are only visible to (or believed by) children? I don't know enough about the long history of children's literature to say for certain, but the trope has sure shown up frequently since then (and of course, I can't think of any right now, except for Elise Broach's Masterpiece).

The Borrowers is read by a British character actress named Rowena Cooper. (As I will watch -- and listen to -- pretty much anything wearing an English accent, I'm pretty sure I've seen her in something listed here. I suspect she's one of those character actresses who just slips unnoticed into a part and does the work.) Cooper is delightful to listen to in this story, as she begins reading with the starchy propriety of Mrs. May -- who is teaching the tempestuous Kate how to crochet -- and then relaxes into the exciting story of her brother meeting the Borrowers. The three Clocks are nicely portrayed: steady and loving Pod, snobbish yet anxious Homily, and the breathlessly adventurous Arrietty. Cooper gets to demonstrate that most British of narrator skills -- class distinction -- in the characters of the housekeeper Mrs. Driver and the ratcatcher as they work to eradicate the Borrowers.

I was inspired to listen to this by Fuse No. 8's Top 100 Children's Novels (April 12 will bring the list to its completion); coming in at 74. I vaguely remember reading this as a child, but I may be mixing it up with all the other "little people" stories that are out there. I'm intrigued to see what the talented Hayao Miyazaki will create with his upcoming animated version of the book. Miyazaki's work is always amazing.

Friday, April 2, 2010

All audiobooks all the time

And one last bit of Friday audiobook business. Check out the links to some other blog reviews of audiobooks in this month's roundup of AudioSynced at Abby (the) Librarian. Keep on listening!

Tapeworm bliss!

I will briefly get a bit crushy and fangirly here and tell you that my fave narrator Dion Graham called me last month to thank me (to thank me ... it's me who should be doing the thanking!) for all the nice things I've said about him here! Every word I said is true! (By posting his picture here, I'm flashing back to the days when I cut out pictures of Bobby Sherman from Tiger Beat [my goodness, it's still being published] -- can you date yourself a little more, Lee?)

Then he contacted the author of the book I had just listened to, David Fulmer, who called me as well! And David Fulmer provided me the correct name of the song that Jelly Roll Morton (as portrayed so memorably by Dion Graham) sings in Chasing the Devil's Tail. It's "Winin' Boy." And I think you can listen to Jelly Roll sing it here (scroll down to the end of "Solo Discography") or watch a record revolve on a turntable. And here are the lyrics (think raunchy!).

I've ILL'd another book read by Dion Graham, as he gave me some more titles from his bibliography/discography. Can't wait!

More tapeworm bliss: I've now met Jim Dale (about 18 months ago) and spoken with Dion Graham. For the trifecta: Katherine Kellgren, I think. Look! Both Graham and Kellgren are nominated for Audies in the Teen category (scroll all the way down to the end of this PDF).

Shawled up

I shall begin this blog post with another admission: When I see a woman or a girl wearing a head scarf wrapped in that distinctive way, I am inclined to think that she is a victim of a male religious rigidity that finds women's hair to be so sexually tempting that women must be responsible for men's behavior. (I have an equal opportunity bias: I think the same thing about Jewish women who wear wigs.) (Please note that I don't think terrorist.) Randa Abdel-Fattah wants me to think again. And I did, after reading Does My Head Look Big in This?

Its (Australian) spring 2002, and Amal Abdel-Hakim is just about to begin the last semester of year 11 (junior year?) at her elite private school in Sydney (Melbourne?). She's been thinking all during her break about wearing the hijab full-time, and -- inspired by Jennifer Aniston's rendition of "Copacabana" on Friends -- decides to take the plunge. Amal stresses to us that this decision is a reflection of her own maturing Islamic faith, that she was not forced by her father and hijab-wearing mother. The novel sees us through the rest of her school year as friends, family, teachers and mean alpha girls all adjust to Amal's choice.

Abdel-Fattah presents Amal as no different from her classmates -- she inhales pop culture, dishes with her BFFs, obsesses about and flirts with the cute boy, pushes at the non-religious limits her parents set for her; she just wants to have fun. There are a few minor dramas, some life learning occurs, and Amal emerges more confident in her decision.

The librarian in me says "yes!" there is a place for a book that presents Muslim teenagers as "normal" teens, except they dress a little differently (I know that's why I bought it when I was purchasing audiobooks for my library). The cover doesn't shy away from its subject as some book covers appear to do when portraying nonwhite ethnicities. How delightful to have a book about Muslims that is not about terrorists or refugees or something equally horrific (this book mentions the 2002 suicide bombings in Bali, but only in passing). Alas, underneath these reasons lies a not very interesting book. Amal is a cardboard symbol -- she stands for stuff (Muslim women, smart girls, pop culture fiends, etc.), but I don't believe any of it. She's giving me a lecture; a mildly amusing one since Amal is a bright, funny young woman, but it's a lecture nevertheless.

I think the book fails most profoundly in its depiction of religious faith: Amal is constantly telling me how important Islam is to her, but it gets slipped in with the chatty, girly references to lip gloss, Jennifer Aniston, Everybody Loves Raymond (did teenage girls actually watch this?), and the sexy forearms of crush Adam, and I never felt that it was nearly as important to her as those things. Except on the most superficial level (cue the part of the lecture about how the hijab is a way that a Muslim woman shows her respect for God), I really don't understand why Amal chooses to "shawl up" full time. (For an example of a novel that does help me to understand faith: I utterly believed in the faith lived and expressed by Ronald Earl Pettway in Days of Little Texas.)

Does My Head ... was originally published in Australia, and the audiobook hails from there as well. Rebecca Macauley reads, and she brings to the first-person narration the appropriate peppiness, teen vocalese, and sincerity. I had no problems tuning my ear to the Australian delivery (a problem I've occasionally had in the past), so I didn't spend the first disc going "huh?" I noticed the last time I listened to her Macauley had some narrator tics that annoyed me, but I didn't hear them on this book (maybe my "Odyssey ears" are finally calming down). She is consistent with the book's many characters, and considering she's got to create seven different teenage girls, I think she does pretty well. I do like the way that Macauley's vocal mannerisms and accent firmly place this book in its Down Under location, it would simply not have been the same if it had been read by a Yankee. I'm glad that Bolinda continues to sell its books in the U.S.

This book is a nominee for the 2010 Young Readers' Choice Award. I can't vote, but if I could, it would be Arnold Spirit Jr. hands down!