Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Boys will be boys

There is something to be said about the continuing appeal of Robin Hood. What's not to like? There's the whole "rob from the rich, give to the poor" thing, the young men hanging out together in the forest thing, the romance with a spunky girl thing. Robin keeps popping up in movies, on television, and in many, many variations in print. What's the original source? Is Howard Pyle's 19th century version the one upon which most modern interpretations are based?

Despite Robin's ongoing popularity, I'm not sure I'd offer The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood to a young reader who wanted to read more about Robin and his band, inspired by the recent movie (or that utterly ridiculous television program). There's something distinctly old-fashioned about the Robin in these stories. He and his band of merry men are really just man-boy thrill seekers without much purpose. They seem constitutionally unable to remain quietly in their bosky refuge. The rob-from-the-rich motivation isn't particularly emphasized and Maid Marian isn't in the picture. The episodic novel spends a number of chapters bringing the band together -- Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan a-Dale, and Friar Tuck each arrive in turn -- and then a few more chapters with various bits of derring-do (much archery abounds). The Sheriff of Nottingham is thwarted. Then, Richard the Lionheart shows up, demands that they all take up some adult responsibilities and the book is over. There's an odd epilogue describing the death of Robin Hood.

So, the pleasure of this book for me is its reader, Christopher Cazenove, who -- sadly -- died earlier this year (this obit says that he is most well-known for his work on Dynasty, but I remember him from The Duchess of Duke Street). Cazenove is wonderfully good. The language is really dense (lots of "quoths" "thithers" "dosts" and the like), and he reads smoothly and confidently. His narrative (non-dialog) voice is pleasing to listen to. The novel contains a fair number of "action sequences" of fighting or archery contests and Cazenove reads these with enthusiasm and definite changes in pacing.

The many characters in the stories are consistent and occasionally clever -- Friar Tuck is a bit of a boozer, the Sheriff shouting and gravelly, Queen Eleanor's young page boyish, Richard the Lionheart suitably regal. A lot of songs (poetry) are in the text, and Cazenove delivers them all in his slightly reedy tenor voice -- once or twice he sings in the character of a non-singer (i.e., not all of them are sung by the troubadour, Alan a-Dale). And someone must have composed the music for them, as each one is different. The whole package is completely professional.

I'll admit I didn't listen to this under optimum circumstances. I absorbed the stories in fits and starts -- including a week-long hiatus. So, maybe it didn't hang together for me as a novel because I didn't give it the chance to. I'm not sure that I'd ever want to read this (to my knowledge I've never read anything by Howard Pyle), this is one of those where it's best to leave the heavy lifting to more capable readers ... like Christopher Cazenove. (I see that he has read Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, a book I have long wanted to read. Add it to the metaphorical pile.)

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Narrated by Christopher Cazenove
Blackstone Audio, 2006. 10:36 (unabridged)

FTW

I believe Cory Doctorow when he tells me that some online games have a larger economy than most of the world's nations. That there are thousands of young men (mostly) toiling away in internet cafes in China, India, Southeast Asia and Mexico "mining" game gold that some petty tyrant one step up the economic ladder from the miners will sell for real money to bored and unskilled first-world gamers who can't be bothered to earn the gold themselves. And that the real winners in this economy are the (mostly Western) corporate owners of these games who don't really care that young men are being exploited in an almost sweatshop environment.

This is mildly interesting to me. In For the Win (The unreadable cover tagline is "In the virtual future, you've got to organize to survive."), the author of Little Brother once again imagines a very-near future where technology and human rights collide. And while it has moments of vivid action and real tension, like Little Brother, Doctorow bogs us down with the details. It's like he's done all this research and by god, he's going to tell us absolutely everything he's learned. This generally does not make for good fiction. It makes it difficult for me to invest in the characters and care about their fates.

I'll try to summarize. Young online game gold miners -- located in south China and in the slummy exurbs of Mumbai (?) -- playing in the delicious-sounding worlds of Svartalfheim Warriors and Zombie Mecha, organize into the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW) [or the Webblies] -- led by the union-savvy, Singapore-based Big Sister Nor and her two assistants Justbob and the Mighty Krang. Like their predecessor, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Webblies plan to strike for better pay and working conditions. A young Californian gamer, Leonard Goldberg -- who goes by Wei-Dong in solidarity with his game-playing brothers in China -- finds himself the heir to a worldwide shipping fortune when his father suddenly dies. He sneaks aboard one of his container ships headed for China. After an unnerving voyage, Wei-Dong arrives and meets up with a pirate radio star and champion of Chinese factory girls named Jie. Through Big Sister Nor, Wei-Dong and Jie -- along with two female gamers living in India -- collaborate to bring the games to an economic halt, with reverberations felt in the corporate headquarters of Coca-Cola.

George Newbern (new to me) reads this lengthy (16+ hours) novel. While he has a pleasant speaking voice, frankly I had trouble staying engaged. Newbern tends to read every sentence the same way, which can get quite lulling. This reading style proves particularly challenging during what I'll call the "seminar" sections of the book. I just couldn't be bothered paying attention to all those details, read in a voice that really isn't very different than the voice that's telling me the occasionally exciting story.

The narrator chooses not to voice the story's many characters, although following dialog is not very difficult. Every once in a while he adds a tinge of accent to a character -- most successfully with the Indian characters, but he isn't terribly consistent. I think that Newbern has a difficult job to do though, character-wise. All the cleverly named people in this novel -- add General Robotwalla and Connor Prikkel to the mix -- aren't really people, of course. They are political positions, not much different than those depicted in the notable stage play The Cradle Will Rock (Larry Foreman, Mr. Mister, etc.).

At the same time, I do admire Doctorow's passion for fairness and commitment to ideas. And I like the fact that he speaks honestly to teenagers -- addressing their lives in their language. There's a consistent demand for his books at my library; somebody's reading them!

In the quibble department: Many, far too many, of Doctorow's characters engage in (what I am assuming is) the physical activity of waggling their chin. What is this? How do you do it? Why? In a (way) earlier post, I complained about a novel with too many waggling eyebrows. But at least I understand how one does waggle one's eyebrows. The chin on the other hand ...

Thanks to Urban Dictionary for the explanation of the title (for we non-gamers): "An enthusiastic emphasis to the end of a comment, message, or post." The Wiktionary also contributes: "'FTW' is mostly used to indicate a contribution or action taken that one is proud of, even facetiously."

For the Win by Cory Doctorow
Narrated by George Newbern
Listening Library, 2010. 16:31 (unabridged)

ftw

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mindful living

I really like the unifying cover design that Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) has created for Francisco X. Stork's last two books: Marcelo in the Real World and his latest, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. The silhouetted characters against those huge skies makes you want to pick them up and at least read the jacket copy. But it was, really, Marcelo that made me want to read Stork's most recent book.

The Death Warriors are D.Q. (Daniel Quentin) and Pancho Sanchez (think Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) -- two residents of a group home for teen boys, St. Anthony's, located in Las Cruces, New Mexico. D.Q. has lived there for some time, and he is now trying to be formally emancipated from his mother -- who placed him here when he was nine or ten, as she believed that she could no longer care for him. D.Q. has brain cancer, and he and his mother disagree about the treatment he should be pursuing. Pancho has just arrived at St. Anthony's, as he has no adult able to care for him. His father died a few months ago, and his older sister Rosa -- mentally disabled -- was found dead in a motel room. While the coroner could find no cause of death, Pancho believes she was murdered. He is determined to find her killer and take revenge.

Upon Pancho's arrival, D.Q. petitions that he be given the job of tending to D.Q.'s physical needs. D.Q.'s going to need a lot of help over the next few weeks as he is returning to the hospital and then to an outpatient residence for chemo. D.Q. recognizes a kindred spirit in Pancho, and introduces him to the work of his life, the Death Warrior Manifesto. Death Warriors vow “to love life at all times and in all circumstances.” Pancho is skeptical, but since he needs the money, he becomes D.Q.'s companion.

I really enjoyed this novel. While on some level, it is the kid-with-cancer-who-must-teach-others-all-about-living teen novel, it manages to transcend that tired genre. Like its literary inspiration, it's really a book about an evolving friendship. Neither D.Q. nor Pancho has an aha! moment of understanding, their revelations sneak up on them and they struggle with accepting what they learn. Like Marcelo Sandoval, I appreciated the opportunity to know these boys.

Ryan Gesell (who clearly has other things going on since he hasn't updated his website in two years!) reads the book. I'm trying not to be shallow by commenting on his boyish good looks; he has a lovely voice as well. It's quiet and resonant, and I like what he does with the characters of both boys -- Pancho's simmering anger as well as the way he grudgingly comes to like and appreciate D.Q. are both evident in Gesell's reading. D.Q. speaks with a weary gruffness that tends to get a little one-note, but is consistent and (possibly) true to a character suffering the late stages of a terminal illness.

Gesell also takes an interesting approach to the book's omniscient narrator, reading with a relaxed edge of humor that keeps the story from becoming maudlin. I have one concern about his reading style that I hope he'll improve upon once he narrates a few more books: He regularly drops the final letters of some words and elides entirely over others. It's not so much that I can't understand the author's intent, but it is a wee bit sloppy. Also, he doesn't give the author's full name (leaving off the oh-so-interesting X) when reading the credits. What's up with that?

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork.
Narrated by Ryan Gesell
Listening Library, 2010. 8:18 (unabridged)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER!

In 2006, Esquire magazine declared the first line of Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye to be among the best of the year: "In two or three hours… well, it's hard to tell…in three hours, surely, or at the very outside, four hours…within four hours, let us say, I'll be dead." I liked this opening as well; once I finished this complex historical mystery, I went back and relistened to the first disc because I wanted reminding how the author had set up his story ... now that I knew its ending.

It's 1830. Gus Landor has retired from the New York City constabulary for his health and is living in the highlands above the Hudson River close by the not-quite-30-years-old United States Military Academy at West Point. The superintendent of the Academy calls on Landor to help him solve a horrifying mystery: Who removed the heart of a young cadet who had just committed suicide? His body was spirited away from the hospital where it lay following its discovery hanging from a tree, and then returned ... sans heart. Landor, with plenty of time on his hands, agrees to investigate the crime. Shortly afterward, he meets another cadet with a peripheral connection to the deceased and hires him to be his inside-the-Academy contact. That cadet's name is Edgar Allen Poe.

Landor and Poe quickly determine that the dead cadet had not committed suicide, but was murdered. They embark on a lengthy investigation that involves late-night meetings, secret messages left under a rock, dinner parties with underlying tensions, attempted murder by bomb and by sabre, and lots and lots of drinking. Landor and Poe develop an oddly close friendship -- the gruff, straightforward constable is the perfect foil for the melodramatic and flowery Poe, who claims that the poetry he has written to date has been dictated by his dead mother. The pale blue eye of the title occurs in his well-known short story The Tell-tale Heart (a quote from which I have used in the title of this post).

I liked this a lot, but then I like both mysteries and historical fiction. I like the way the author creates a cracking good story -- with a twist at the end that surprised me -- and then seamlessly weaves in fictional details that conceivably could be an "origin" story for Poe: The missing heart at West Point becomes the Tell-tale Heart or the romantic poem Lenore may have been inspired by the sad and beautiful Lea Marquis, with whom Poe meets and falls in love. The characters are fascinating and the setting is vivid. I can smell the funk of Landor's favorite drinking establishment; I can feel the cold of the unseasonably early blizzard; I can see the blood of Poe ... wait! No spoilers!

A narrator new to me reads the novel, Charles Leggett, and he's very good. Most of the story is a narrative of the events related by Landor and Leggett creates his brusque, no-nonsense character with a deep, growly voice. There's an underlayer of unexplained grief in Landor that comes to the forefront at the very end of the novel in the most moving way possible. Leggett's narration left me breathless.

Contrast Landor with Poe. Leggett creates him as an aristocratic Southerner with a soft, almost whispery delivery. He reads Poe's elaborately descriptive letters to Landor with appropriate drama. Both characters recite Poe's poetry with confidence and emotion.

The novel's other characters all pale in comparison to its detectives, but Leggett does create individual voices for most of them and they all sound realistic. He pulls off a scene where Lea Marquis is giving a singing recital, but she's not able to reach those soprano notes very well. Lea's mother -- unstable and deluded -- does come off a little drag-queenish, but I give the narrator the benefit of the doubt with a difficult character. What I particularly appreciate about Leggett's narration is that if the author provided instruction on how someone's voice sounded, he makes every effort to produce that voice as directed. Bravo!

My appreciation of children's literature aside, I think I am at my reading zenith with a hefty historical novel with a mystery to be revealed (not necessarily a murder). And when something like that's being read to me, by a skilled and emotive narrator ... well, if only I had a cottage at the beach and no need to earn a living ... [sigh].

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
Narrated by Charles Leggett
BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. 15:29 (unabridged)