Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ay-yuh

I used to subscribe to The New Yorker. Eventually, though, I couldn't stand it as the issues just piled up staring at me, saying you can't recycle me until you read me. While I liked most of the nonfiction features (John McPhee anyone?), I felt kinda blasé about the fiction. Too dense, too obscure, too ... ok, I'll say it, literary. Reading it felt like work. Which brings me to Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. I think I would have enjoyed reading these as they were originally published in The New Yorker, scattered over a year or two -- catching up with Olive and the other residents of Crosby, Maine -- but all in one swoop didn't go down easy.

Olive is a retired junior high math teacher, renowned for her strictness and her barbed temperament. Her former students fear her. She lives with her kind husband Henry, the town's pharmacist, but their only child Christopher pretty much got out of Olive's orbit as soon as he could (but this was later than just after college). The 13 stories mostly feature Olive as protagonist, but occasionally she just puts in an appearance. They are all vivid in their description of place, but where the writing left me gave me pause (in a good way) was the way Strout defines a character through the way they stand or dress, or even -- since the author's narrative is what the New York Times calls "free indirect" -- what they are thinking (without it being their actual thoughts). Her writing is literary without density, a reader doesn't have to work to parse what she is saying, yet we recognize that her spare prose is telling us so much than just the words she is using.

The stories are deeply compelling, full of situations that ring completely true about a community that's losing its cohesion as its children move away, about aging and loss, about parents and adult children, about how relationships ebb and flow, how they change or don't change. There's a feeling of melancholy for lost things that runs through the stories. You don't need to live in a small town in Maine to utterly understand the actions and emotions of the people who live there. Strout's characters are universal. And her characters are -- almost to a person -- all deeply real.

But when the interlinked stories repeatedly provided a simple back story (Olive is fat, Henry is kind, Olive's angry at Henry's incapacity, Christopher is ungrateful), I got cranky. I didn't need that information intruding -- again! -- on this new story. And in the few stories where Olive makes just a brief appearance it often felt like she was placed there just to provide continuity to the collection of stories. So, the stories all together failed for me.

I had a brief flirtation (shorter than the time I subscribed to The New Yorker) with short fiction while I was in graduate school, as they met my need for stories with limited reading time available. I rarely go back to them, but I really should. I think I would have enjoyed Olive Kitteridge more in little bursts (to paraphrase the title of one of Strout's stories).

On the other hand, I wasn't crazy about the narration by Sandra Burr. She is prolific, but I've only heard her read one time, before I began keeping this blog. When Burr read the dialogue, she was lively, consistent and interesting; the characters are believable. Her Maine accent seemed a little wobbly to me, not nearly as good as those heard here, but it wasn't disastrously bad.

Burr's narrative voice, though, gave me problems. It rarely changed in pace or volume, its rhythm became lulling. It seemed as if she was awed by Strout's prose, so much so that she could only read it in the most deferential way possible. Does she want to step out of the way, so listeners can appreciate just the words? Unfortunately, reading this neutrally only leads to missing the words altogether as the mind inevitably wanders.

I'm also not sure that listening to something this well-written is the best way to access it. Strout's prose is so excellent that you want to linger over it, to go back and read that perfect, perfect sentence over again. To leave post-it notes (although I'm generally not a post-it-note reader), so you can find it again ... for a blog post, maybe [ ;-) ], although just to revisit may be reason enough.

This was likely the last audiobook for 2011. Some were better than others. The worst was, I think, the other Maine book. And that's all I'm going to say about that 'cause I don't want to end on a cranky note. There were these two books that also took place in Maine; I liked them.

[One of my favorite stories was "Tulips," where Olive is coming to grips with Henry's debilitating stroke. This photograph was taken by Nevit Dilmen and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Narrated by Sandra Burr
Brilliance Audio, 2008. 10:35

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

SAT vocabulary

Before I started listening to audiobooks, I was a one-book-at-a-time reader (and, of course, I finished that book before starting the next). Now, I'm a tad more loose; but I got a little mixed up this past week listening to the dystopian Chicago of Veronica Roth's Divergent, while reading about dystopian Los Angeles in Marie Lu's Legend. Occasional muddling ensued, as did occasional amusement. Divergent, which ran away with Goodreads' Choice Award for Favorite Book of 2011, has that Hunger Games magic mix of bleak, maybe totalitarian, environment; girl with no future who triumphs over grueling physical and mental challenges, and ... oh yeah! finds romance.

Beatrice Pryor's 16th birthday is approaching, the day when she will evaluate the results of her aptitude test and formally choose which faction in which she will spend the rest of her life. Beatrice has been raised in Abnegation, one of five factions making up society in a future Chicago, and the only faction to hold political power (since they won't be swayed by its privileges). Each faction believes that it is the true path to solving the society's problems, and they live in uneasy coexistence. The test results tell the teens which faction is the place where their personalities will work best, but the society does not insist that a student select that faction on their Choosing Day. Beatrice, however, does not get a clear result on her aptitude test. She is told that she is Divergent, that she has aptitude for Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless (but not Amity or Candor). And that under no circumstances should she share the results of her test with anyone. "Divergence is extremely dangerous."

On Choosing Day, Beatrice rejects her family and chooses Dauntless. Her older brother also leaves, choosing Erudite. Beatrice is plunged (literally) into an initiation that values physical power and "bravery" as a means of fixing society. (The quotes are mine, I didn't like this part.) When the month-long training is over, initiates will have endured countless episodes of physical violence, as well as a series of simulations where they are forced to face their deepest fears. Those who do not make the cut are severed from Dauntless and join the ranks of the factionless, doomed to live their lives in isolation and poverty. Beatrice becomes Tris, gets a few tattoos, bonds with some of her fellow initiates (and makes enemies of others) and her instructor, Four, and stumbles upon a plot designed to bring other factions to power.

The story is more complex than I've described -- and it thoughtfully addresses adolescent issues of community, family and where to belong -- but I found the violence deeply disturbing. It's clearly a military approach of break them down/build them up, and the novel reveals to us that Dauntless training was not always this way, but its glorification bothered me. I felt like I was meeting all the District One and Two tributes in training for The Hunger Games. Tris and her friends are sympathetic, but on the whole I didn't like any of them. When the plot to destroy Abnegation kicks in, the story became more of a thrill and I enjoyed the last pages. The romance is very sweet as well. And, in case you didn't know, Tris and Four will return.

Dystopian Chicago was very interesting to me, as Roth refers to various landmarks (the Bean, the Hancock Tower, I even think that Dauntless headquarters was at Wrigley Field?) familiar to almost everyone. Their decay and dilapidation leant an air of eerie horror to the novel, the feeling that our society today is just a disaster or two removed from Tris's.

Divergent is narrated by Emma Galvin, a new-to-me narrator (here's a short interview). She has a lovely reading voice, low and quiet with enough youthfulness to make you believe that she's a teenager. She brings a lot of intensity to her narration, which is perfectly in line with the character of Tris. She doesn't attempt to identify characters with vastly different voices, but uses speech rhythms, volume and changes in register so that following dialogue is easy. When Tris is frightened or excited, or making the decision to kill someone she knows, the emotions are easy to hear in Galvin's narration. She made the long hours of violent training mostly bearable and brought the novel to its exciting close. I'd listen to her read again.

I received Divergent as a gift from Bewitched Bookworms, for participating in their 2011 challenge, Whisper Stories in My Ear. I thank them, especially because I rejected their offerings the month I won and asked for Divergent instead. Since I had no trouble meeting their minimum -- one audiobook per month! -- there wasn't much challenge for me. I had my little fun this year out there on the wide prairie of the internet, but I think I'll return to my sod cabin and soldier on alone. Listening, always listening.

[The watercolor of the "HMS Dauntless in a following wind, November 17, 1950" is by Captain Cowper Phipps Coles and is in the public domain. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons and the original is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.]

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Narrated by Emma Galvin
Harper Audio, 2011. 11:11

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An innocent abroad

It's Sunday, my library got some bad financial news (right before the holidays!) and I'm feeling reflective. Grief is a unique experience. No one grieves like anyone else. I tried to remember this while listening to Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close this past week. (The librarian in me struggles with featuring a Wikipedia entry, but the author himself links to it from another site, so here you go.) Until the very end of this book, I was close to utterly fed up with young Oskar Schell and his incredible journey. But then, Oskar got closure (or something like that [it depends on how you grieve]), and I was in tears.

Oskar was seven years old when his father died at Windows on the World on September 11, 2001. He is bereft. He was sent home from school early -- without being told why -- and enters his family's apartment hearing his father leaving a message on the answering machine. His father called a total of six times. Before his mother got home, Oskar removed the answering machine and its recording and hid it from her. Two years later, Oskar sees his mother, and the world, moving on from that awful, awful day, but he's not ready. He finds a key inside an envelope labeled "Black" tucked inside a glass vase in his father's closet. Oskar decides that if he can find the lock for that key, he will receive a message that his father left for him.

Oskar is an unusual child, and this was where I had the most problems with the novel (not all the problems ... there's more to come!). He's basically an adult with an occasional nine-year-old's trait. To all intents and purposes, his mother seems to have left him alone for two years as he pursues his various interests -- French, astrophysics, inventions, tambourine playing ... an insatiable curiosity that -- among other things -- exposes him to internet porn. He also has a load of fears -- all relating to the way everyday things led to his father's death. He applies his investigative abilities to tracking down every Black in the five boroughs to see who has the lock to his key.

I think it helps to view this as a fantasy novel -- there are no barriers in the way of a smart pre-tween making his way all over New York City to meet every Black he could locate (no mention of unlisted numbers, by the way). Mom doesn't seem to worry about his absences day and night and money wasn't a problem. Even when I told myself that I was reading fantasy, Oskar's situation and actions continually bugged me. For example, why would a class of 4th graders be performing Hamlet? Is it really that easy to dig up a grave in the middle of the night?

Then, being Foer (pronounced like the number if you are interested), the author ladles on another layer to his novel. Two other narrators interrupt Oskar's story: A man who does not speak is addressing a series of letters to his son, and a woman who has "crummy eyes" and is writing a memoir for her grandson. All in wordy, stream-of-consciousness, and self-conscious, prose. We eventually figure out that these people are Oskar's grandparents who also live in a fantasy world that doesn't require money, physical logistics, or any basis in reality. And we learn that they experienced something akin to the attack on the Towers during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II.

As you know, I finish things, and I finished this. It rewards a reader who dislikes ambiguity , as Foer provides absolute closure (there are no loose ends at all). Oskar has an apotheosis at the top of another iconic skyscraper, the Empire State Building. It was incredibly moving, much the way that Conor O'Malley's was a few books ago. But unlike Patrick Ness' spare, focused novella, this one sprawls all over the place, feeling very indulgent and consciously literary. The book I had the most flashbacks to was that of Foer's contemporary and fellow author/gadfly, Dave Eggers.

I am grateful for three narrators, though -- who, as narrators do in so many instances -- make the nonsense go down a little more easily. Yes, following young Oskar on his quest for Blacks is so much easier when you are commuting, exercising, wrapping presents, etc. Jeff Woodman handles Oskar's narration, Barbara Caruso is grandma, and Richard Ferrone is grandpa. Woodman is the standout here, but he's got more to work with. He uses his youthful voice to great effect as the precocious Oskar matter-of-factly describing his inventions, his observations of the adult world, and his Asperger's-like focus on his mission. When Oskar finally weeps, though, it's shocking and deeply personal. Listening to Woodman's performance makes Oskar a real boy (which I don't think he is in Foer's novel), so that his breakdown is all the more poignant.

Caruso, who I listened to several times when I was first snapping up audiobooks (she was quite memorable as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time), reads Oskar's grandmother with warmth and a rich emotion that invests her story with truth as well.

Ferrone, the only one of the three I have never heard read before, has a deep, gravelly delivery that nicely represents the voice of a man who doesn't speak. He reads with detachment, another good choice for a character who carefully keeps people at a distance and strong emotion under wraps.

Yes, the reason why I listened to this was because there is a movie coming out (I had mostly Sandra Bullock flashes while listening; fortunately Oskar's mother doesn't appear very often in the novel), and I was frustrated by the novel a lot of the time, but I'm glad I got to it. Foer's first novel, Everything is Illuminated, also satisfied me in the end, while annoying me during. I lived in New York well before 9/11, but in trips there since 2001 I've yet to visit Ground Zero. I've avoided the annual outpourings of mass mourning (or disaster porn as others more eloquent than I have described it) because I never felt it was my loss. Oskar's loss and grief rang true to me, though -- he was working through it the only way he knew how. As we all must do.

[The photo of the World Trade Center Tribute in Lights was taken by Derek Jensen and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Narrated by Barbara Caruso, Richard Ferrone, and Jeff Woodman
Recorded Books, 2005. 11:00

Sunday, December 11, 2011

40%

Readers here know that I am a reader of detective fiction, but you might not know that I feel some small obligation to you to not plunk you down in the middle of a series. Starting at the beginning is important to me, so when I can combine the beginning with an audio version, I'm inclined to give it my ears. Add Dion Graham to the mix and it's an easy one to add to the listening queue. Hence, The Cut by George Pelecanos.

Spero Lucas works as an unlicensed investigator for a solo practice lawyer representing mostly small-time criminal defendants. He has a side business recovering lost or stolen items for a straight cut of 40%. He likes outdoor sports (biking, kayaking), women, food, music that I've mostly never heard of, books that I have heard of, and his working-class neighborhood in northeast (?) Washington, DC (all described with loving detail).

Spero, who was adopted into a Greek-American family, lives near his widowed mother and beloved older brother, Leo. Leo is African American and Spero is white. (I knew this because I'd listened to a short story featuring Spero's family before listening to The Cut, but I really liked how we learn about characters' race not through description, but how other characters react to them.) Spero was a Marine in Iraq, and his work feels a little like he doesn't really know what to do with himself after the purpose and mission he felt while serving.

He takes a recovery job from one of his employer's defendants, a marijuana dealer for whom a few shipments have gone astray. Pursuing the thefts leads to the assassination of the dealer's two young assistants, and to a criminal enterprise led by a former rogue cop. A promising student of Spero's brother gets caught up in the middle. Spero is driven not so much by right and wrong, but his sense of personal justice. And when he needs to kill, he views his act dispassionately, as necessary -- a view honed by his experiences in Fallujah.

While I appreciate Pelecanos' writing -- which has an urban rhythm and a righteousness that is compelling -- I find the details not particularly interesting. The name dropping -- clothes, cars, musicians, and yes, even writers -- feels pretentious to me, and it never ceased. The villains are so obviously, well villainous that their comeuppance is not satisfying. Even the setting -- which is the strongest part of the novel, as the affection the author feels for the non-governmental settings of DC is palpable -- became mired down in such detail that I began tuning out.

I don't wish to pile on, but I found the characters a little cardboard-y as well. In Chosen, the short story of Spero's origins -- how he was adopted and grew up in the Lucas family -- Spero's parents come across as saints in their color-blindness, not real people at all. Saintliness, sexiness, intensity, innocence -- all of Pelecanos' characters just seem so one dimensional. Like the flawed hero he is, Spero is an interesting character, but he's surrounded by types.

The question is, do these flaws show up in the detective fiction that I do like and I just don't see them because I'm enjoying the puzzle? Maybe I need the puzzle. I get that in real life most crimes are not committed by highly intelligent people adept at disguising their involvement, but I don't read detective fiction for reality. After two Pelecanos novels, I think I know that the "reality" of hard-boiled fiction (which isn't real either) -- the clothing labels, the music, and the no-question-about-it bad guys -- isn't my cup of tea. I'm just going to have to get my Dion fix elsewhere.

I liked Graham here (face it, I like Graham). He does a fine job channeling Spero's conflicts -- warrior, loner, lover, brother, grieving son. The resonant softness, almost whisper, of his delivery works well with Pelecanos' street rhythms, giving the whole narrative a sense of impending calamity. He livens up a few of the other characters with some vocal interest -- I enjoyed his portrayal of Spero's two war buddies, and the two young marijuana dealers who meet an unpleasant end.

And, I gotta say (with a blush) ... there's a scene early in the novel when Spero is making love with one of his women and, well ... Graham delivered a character's moment of pleasure authentically. And that's all I've got to say about that!

[Spero's 'hood is NE DC. The picture of the 800 block of H Street, NE was taken by AgnosticPreachersKid and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Also from the Commons, Jen's photo of blusher and brush.]

The Cut and Chosen by George Pelecanos
Narrated by Dion Graham
Hachette Audio, 2011. 7:32 (The Cut) and 0:45 (Chosen)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Summer residency

Why do two book review journals (Booklist and Kirkus) refer to the hero of Mark Mills' The Savage Garden by the wrong last name? Was Adam Strickland's last name changed from Banting just before publication? Curious. And slightly pertinent, since Strickland is a character who -- when confronted with a conundrum like the somewhat askew arrangement of a formal garden in Tuscany, or a room where a murder took place that's been locked for 14 years -- will worry it until he has an answer.

Adam is an art history student at Cambridge in 1958. He lucks into a summer research project, courtesy of his lecturer, Crispin Leonard. He'll study the famed Renaissance garden of the Villa Docci, created in the 1500s to honor Flora, a young woman who died shortly after her marriage to an elderly Docci. The Doccis still reside at the Villa, and the family is slowly recovering from the years of occupation during World War II, when the eldest son was mercilessly killed by the Germans as they prepared to flee the advancing Allies.

When Adam arrives at Villa Docci and begins to explore the garden, something seems slightly off to him -- the garden doesn't follow the symmetrical rules of the period and the statues of the various gods -- the namesake Flora, Narcissus, Hyacinth and Adonis -- have unusual positions or locations. Welcomed into the Villa by the elderly owner, Francesca Docci and her beautiful granddaughter Antonella, Adam ponders this puzzle. He also learns about the circumstances of the death of Emilio -- the heir to the estate -- and that the room where he was murdered hasn't been touched since.

Adam's classical education comes in handy as he breaks the code of the garden using Dante's Inferno and the help of his randy older brother Harry. The Doccis seem less enthusiastic about his interest in Emilio's death, and getting too close may endanger his life. He's not even sure that Antonella -- with whom he has fallen in love -- will tolerate his curiosity.

I really enjoy an art- or literature-based historical mystery (Possession anyone? The Historian?) so this is right down my alley. The setting is wonderfully described -- the lush but slightly forbidding garden, the hot Tuscan summer, formal late-night dinners of wine and pasta at the Villa. But I found it dragging a bit. Adam's discoveries seemed to all be of the "by Jove!" variety (plus he always seemed to react precisely that way) -- revelations that seemed to pop fully formed into his head. The romance seemed a little stilted (I was folding laundry during the big lovemaking scene and it was not enough to make me stop ... folding that is).

There was also an all-revealing letter at the end that reeked of melodrama to me. And, in an audiobook huh? moment, the very beginning includes a literary device that confused me enough that I started the audiobook again. In the print version, this device would be recognizable as you turned the first page. When I was "look[ing] inside this book" at amazon.com -- in search of the map of the garden -- I came across the novel's first page, and I could not remember what it meant. Who "was known, primarily, for his marrows"? Huh? It seems odd to start this way, and then drop it immediately.

A narrator I seem to have no prayer of finding out about online, Ian Stuart, reads the novel. (My library's catalog says that he was born in 1927 [making him 80 when he read this ... which just can't be, can it?].) Stuart reads in a resonant, baritone-ish English accent. In the novel's long descriptive passages, he is pleasant to listen to. When things get a little dicey for our hero, Stuart can deliver the tension and excitement.

He doesn't voice characters vastly differently, relying instead on the emotion of what each person is saying to distinguish between them, so figuring out who was speaking wasn't a problem. All the Italians in the novel speak in Italian-accented English. When Stuart did speak Italian, which he did occasionally, he sounded authentic to me. I kept wanting to hear more of 'ch' sound when he pronounced Docci, in my ears Stuart gave it more of a soft 'g.' A minor quibble. If there are other Ian Stuart narrations out there, I'd listen to him again.

Curioser and curioser. Who is Ian Stuart? Who or what is Banting, and why is it a bad last name? Is there a literary reference to "savage garden" that I'm missing? From the Inferno, maybe?

[Adam Strickland compares the statue of Flora to that of Giambologna's Venus in Florence's Boboli Garden. This image of the Venus was retrieved from the museum's website.]

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
Narrated by Ian Stuart
Brilliance Audio, 2007. 8:15

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Grounded

I was very fortunate to meet Jack Gantos when he visited our library in 2003. Gosh, he was funny! He made this great presentation -- using an overhead projector of all things -- where he entertainingly explained to kids how to write what you know. He drew a map of his neighborhood and began telling stories -- here's where I got the bad haircut, here's where I jumped off the roof, here's where our dog died. I think most of his novels stem from what he knows. His latest novel, Dead End in Norvelt, is more crazy storytelling from and by a boy named Jack Gantos.

Jack is having the worst summer of his life. It's 1964, he's 11 years old and he's living in slowly dying Norvelt, Pennsylvania. His mother has grounded him for accidentally shooting off his father's World War II Japanese rifle and for mowing down her corn crop (the latter at his father's instigation). The only time he can leave his house is when his next-door neighbor, Miss Volker, calls him for help. She's the town historian and chief obituary writer, but her arthritis is so bad that she can't type or grip a pen anymore. Miss Volker wants Jack to take dictation for her obits and her "this day in history" columns, and then dash down to the Norvelt News with them.

At first Jack is horrified ... at his first encounter with the acerbic Miss Volker, he thinks she's boiling her hands off as she tries a paraffin heat treatment. But as they get to know one another, Jack realizes that his love of history reflects hers. Norvelt, Miss Volker tells him, was a town founded by (what we would now call) the working poor during the Great Depression with the support of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The town honored her in its name. Norvelt was founded on the idea of people banding together to help one another, but now its residents are fleeing in droves. There are just a few original Norvelt-ians left, and Miss Volker is determined to remember them, and the town in which they used to live.

Miss Norvelt's obituaries are deeply personal -- as is fitting since she knows the deceaseds really, really well. But the elderly Norvelt-ians seem to be dying at an accelerated rate. This, coupled with Jack's fear of death, the dead Hell's Angel, his constantly bleeding nose, visits to the mortuary, and the fact that his dad's making him dig a bomb shelter, mean it's not going to be the boring summer Jack thought it would be.

Those who like to read Gantos (or Gantos-Boy as one of the characters in this novel calls him) for the laughs or the grossology will find plenty of that here, but the part of the book that spoke to me was more sentimental. Norvelt is changing, and mostly not for the better. Miss Volker realizes it, but she's hanging on to what is good. Jack's dad sees it and wants to get out. Jack loves history and -- through Miss Volker -- understands that it can inform us about the present. He's torn between his parents -- his mom wants to stay, his dad has his eye on Florida.

Gantos serves as narrator. Five years ago I listened to one of his books, The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, which is the only book he's written that he hasn't narrated (I think). He couldn't narrate anyone else's books, because of a strong regional accent and limited voice acting skills, but he's just perfect here. His nasality, plus those western Pennsylvania vowels, fit so well with the Jack who is telling this story. He doesn't distinguish characters with voices, but his emotional readings are so genuine. Gantos has no difficulty getting inside the head and vocal patterns of a pre-adolescent boy. Fear, fascination, exasperation, stupidity and love are all completely clear in his narration. It's a pleasure to listen to him read.

The audiobook concludes with a insightful -- if poor recording quality -- interview with Gantos. He describes his love for his home town and the very real conflicts of his parents. He briefly explains his approach to writing -- starting with a nugget of an idea and seeing where it takes him. Jack also told of his affection for Eleanor Roosevelt; invited to the White House, he began to cry as he stood in front of Mrs. Roosevelt's portrait there. (His love of Eleanor Roosevelt reminded me of that image from the first Olivia book, where a picture of the late first lady hangs in that crazy pig's bedroom.)

This book bogged down a little bit for me in the middle, as I was wondering where we were headed, but Dead End in Norvelt ended perfectly. I think I knew what was going to happen to Miss Volker, but Gantos doesn't spell it out. Jack's summer just goes on. Life goes on.

[The (tiny -- click on it to make it bigger) map of Norvelt was retrieved from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania's site on "subsistence homestead communities of the 1930s" linked above (on Norvelt).

[The portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt was taken around the time that Norvelt was founded. It is in the Library of Congress and is in the public domain. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Narrated by Jack Gantos
Macmillan Audio, 2011. 7:11

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Believe it or not, there are others listening out there!

It's been too long since I've given a shout-out to the women who collect posts for their monthly feature AudioSynced. Be sure to check out November's links at Abby the Librarian, and October's at Stacked.

Other places to find blog reviews: Audiobook Jukebox, SoundBytes at Devourer of Books, Whisper Stories in My Ears at Bewitched Bookworms, and Teresa's Reading Corner.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

All you need is love?

I'm generally glad when an audiobook publisher discovers a book that features -- in some way -- a recognizably aural experience (as opposed to the general idea that listening to stories is a good thing) and says: "It's a natural! We've got to record this!" Eric Luper's Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto is one of those books. The titular manifesto is a series of podcasts created by 17-year-old Seth to cope with two major upheavals that occur the summer before his senior year.
  • Upheaval no. 1: Seth's girlfriend Veronica tells him it's best if they break up.
  • Upheaval no. 2: Seth spies his father with another woman.
To add insult to Seth's injury, both these events take place at Applebee's, somewhere in the vicinity of Albany, New York. And because a reeling Seth returns late to his shift at the Belgian french-fry place, he's fired from a job for the fourth time.

Angry. That was my overall impression of this book. Seth is seriously pissed off about just about everything. He finds out the name and address of the woman he saw with his father and begins to stalk her, he gets another job -- working at the local country club with his raunchy best friend Dimitri, he begs Veronica to reconsider. But underneath, he's simmering with rage. He channels some of this into his late-night anonymous podcast, "The Love Manifesto," which mixes music with his musings about his relationship with Veronica, about what on earth is going on with his father, and generally about why humans continue to seek out love from one another when it will only end badly. But even this gets dicey when some people connect Seth to the podcast.

I can totally see why Seth is so angry, but the nastiness of this book surprised me. Sure, there's a lot of humor -- mostly of the teenage boy variety, i.e., trading insults or objectifying women; which is not particularly amusing to me, I grant. But I didn't sense any heart there. There was no reason for me to like Seth, or to sympathize with him in his extremely uncomfortable situation.

On the other hand, there's a lot of teen-friendly ideas in here: realizing that your parents aren’t infallible, understanding that some secrets should remain secrets, discovering the emptiness at the end of a love affair. For me, there were a few places where I went huh? Like, would goddess Veronica (who is memorably called Moronica at one point by Dimitri – I did laugh then!) be interested in semi-nerd/geek Seth, who also happens to be the best friend of the tubby and socially inept Dimitri; and do 15-year-old girls like Dimitri's younger sister Audrey have that much romantic confidence? These won’t bother most readers, and seem to me to be particularly boy-friendly errors. The explanation for Seth's dad's relationship with Luz also rang true for me. It's a thoughtful book for older teens.

It's been shockingly more than a year since I've listened to book read by Nick Podehl (who was feeling a little ubiquitous in this blog for a while). This one is right in his wheelhouse -- smart, but confused, slightly id-driven teenaged boy. The dialogue is snappy (particularly, of course, between Seth and Dimitri) and the voices are authentic. Podehl is expert at pacing in teen novels, keeping the narrative lively and interesting with consistent characterization. I did object to one pronunciation: Podehl says Luz's name as luhz, when I think it should be looz. Of course, I could be wrong.

My ears went into complete shock when Podehl disguised his voice to give Seth's manifestos. It was utterly unrecognizable, I heard not a trace of Podehl's "normal" narrator voice. It is deep, really deep, resonant and well ... adult. But not at all how he read the adults in the novel, who are fairly standard one-note characters. I stopped and replayed the recording when I first heard it to check to see if there was another narrator listed. I mean, it was really, really different.

Even though I enjoyed the idea of "The Love Manifesto" on audio, the execution just highlighted the shortcomings of the medium in its occasional role as the poor stepchild of the publishing industry. Each of Seth's podcasts begins and ends with a music cue, where he tells us exactly what music he's been or will be playing. Alas, the music underneath the narration is an extremely generic pop-y instrumental, with one extremely odd exception -- when a snippet of a well-known piece by Bach (I think I'm remembering this correctly) comes over.

I understand copyright and permissions, but tell me truthfully: Is it really an expensive, time-sink of an exercise to get permission from eight or ten music publishers (alright, there might be more cues than that in this novel) to include a genuine piece of music in an audiobook? Seth Baumgartner would have been an absolutely fantastic audiobook with this added, instead, it's just an ordinary one. Print book publishers get permission when authors include song lyrics or poetry, why not audiobook publishers?

(I think I know the answer: Audiobook publishers are on a fast production track, aren't they? They simply do not have the time to wait for those permissions to roll in.)

What's slightly amusing, of course, is that the music references meant absolutely nothing to me. Aside from "Dueling Banjos" (one of the novel's jokes), I don't think I'd heard of any of the songs/performers that Seth mentions. But teens will have, no doubt, which means that maybe they don't need the actual music in there. And, now that I think about it, Seth was engaged in copyright violation, wasn't he? It's so complicated ... or not?

[Seth had just one short putt to make to win the father-son golf tournament that ends this novel. This picture was taken by Lewis Clarke at the Tiverton Golf Club as part of the geograph.co.uk project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. As was the copyright symbol.]

Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto by Eric Luper
Narrated by Nick Podehl
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 6:33

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's witchcraft

It's been over two years since I've had a visit with the Spook and his apprentice Tom Ward in the series called The Last Apprentice by Joseph Delaney (for those who like their info in the original English, here's another website). I'm not on any listening committees anymore and for some reason, my library isn't buying the audiobooks, so I've gone without. I really enjoy the marriage of series and narrator here which might be why I've abstained. When I needed something quick to read over the long weekend, I discovered a collection of short stories, The Spook's Tale and Other Horrors, which means (thankfully) I wasn't reading out of order (a true horror!).

My cranky side says that these books must make a fair amount of money for the publisher, because this is really, really minor Apprentice. Just three stories and a whole lot of filler make up its 166 pages. The actual apprentice, Tom Ward, barely makes an appearance. However, Delaney does keep up the deliciously chilly atmosphere and provides a bit of back story for some of his characters, so it wasn't a total loss. And I got to listen to Christopher Evan Welch for a short time.

The first story is narrated by John Gregory, the Spook himself, who relates how he first encountered the dark and eventually decided to become his Spook's apprentice. On a journey to enter seminary, he met up with a witch who tried to use him as bait to trap the Spook. Fortunately, his Spook -- Henry Horrocks -- was wilier, and Gregory survived, eventually choosing a Spook's career instead of the priesthood.

The third tale is from Grimalkin, the witch assassin that we met in Tom's fourth adventure and who is our cover girl (I think). She explains why she and the Fiend are mortal enemies and describes the time she battled the previous witch assassin to the death.

In between, Tom's friend Alice Deane (who is trying to overcome her witchy origins) tells how she bravely returned to her home village of Pendle to face her relatives in an attempt to save Tom's brother, whom the Pendle witches had kidnapped. (That Pendle witches story is fascinating. I do like how Delaney relates the County's actual history to his fictional stories.)

Following these stories is "The Gallery of Villains," which recaps all the bad uns that Tom and the Spook have met in their adventures, providing a little excerpt from the book in which they first appeared, followed by the exhortation to read the entire book. It felt quite cheesy to me and I spent my listening time idly wondering if Welch had read these sections anew or if the producer had pulled them from their archives.

I eye-read the last Last Apprentice book and enjoyed hearing Welch's voice in my head while I was reading. His narration is quite distinctive and I like it a lot. There's a lot of delicious fear in listening to these, of the please-go-on-but-it's-so-scary variety. He builds tension in the stories through the first-person narrative and in some expert pacing -- knowing when to stretch out the suspense and when to quickly resolve it. I like the fairly high-register innocence he brings to young Tom's character and the crabby, scratchy growl of the Spook. In The Spook's Tale, Welch sustains the Spook's growl while he is telling the story, but assumes the younger, more naive delivery (much like Tom Ward's) for John Gregory's dialogue.

Welch also has a nice variety of scary, threatening, and evil voices that he gives to the book's various witches, fiends and creatures of the dark. Grimalkin has a sharp, raspy delivery that asks for no sympathy despite what the Fiend did to their child. She is, indeed, a cold-blooded assassin who lets nothing get in her way.

While eye-reading the book, Clash of the Demons, I realize that these books are written in a pretty simplistic style -- there are lots of short, choppy, declarative sentences. This can be a trial to listen to (and to read), but Welch pulls it off, imbuing Delaney's prose with the all the conflicting emotions young Tom feels as he faces his fears, his feelings for Alice, and his growing confidence and maturity at fighting the dark.

I think I'd rather keep listening. Alas, there one downloadable available from our Overdrive, but I'm really still a CD person. There may have to be some Interlibrary Loan-ing.

[The image from The Lancaster Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth (an 1849 novel based on the Pendle witch trials of 1612) is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Spook's Tale and Other Horrors by Joseph Delaney
Narrated by Christopher Evan Welch
Harper Audio, 2009. 2:31

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winner and still champion

I learned the story of the African American boxer Jack Johnson from the filmmaker Ken Burns. In between his epics, he makes shorter films and Unforgivable Blackness was one of them. So, I brought a little bit of knowledge to the picture book biography by the poet and photographer Charles R. Smith, Jr., Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson. In spare free verse, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (whose website seems to have been highjacked, so try this one), Smith tells the remarkable story of this black hero.

Jack Johnson's parents were freed slaves, and Jack considered himself an original American as his ancestors arrived before there was an America. Alas, born in 1878 in Texas, most people in the United States considered him inferior. He honed his boxing skills, though, and became a wealthy man. Wealth -- although he enjoyed it quite a lot -- was not enough for Jack, he wanted to be the heavyweight champion of the world. Only the white fighters -- the ones holding that title -- wouldn't fight him.

He finally convinced champion Tommy Burns to meet him in the ring at a match in Australia in 1908, defeating him soundly for the title. Since whites couldn't stomach the idea of a black champion, his title was quickly diminished by those who claimed that the real champion remained the undefeated retired boxer Jim Jeffries. Two years later, Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement to fight Johnson in "The Battle of the Century." Johnson was victorious, and truly became the champion.

Smith's biography covers Johnson's life up to his victory in 1910, concluding with a brief afterword (thoughtfully titled "And then what happened?") about the rest of his life. Evans' illustrations are full of action, with Johnson looming larger and larger. On the last spread, there's just a big bald head and shoulders, smiling slightly, haloed by a shining sun and the bold words: "THE WORLD'S FIRST BLACK HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION."

My man Dion Graham (here's the usual link, but here's a different one) narrates the book. His rich, expressive voice reads the poetry slowly but with vigor. He doesn't belabour the sometimes rhyming, sometimes free, verse making it sound (mostly) natural. Johnson's strength and pride are clear in Graham's sterling narration that builds in intensity and volume to the championship fight.

Live Oak Media always does a fine job with the extras in a picture book narration -- music and sound effects -- and Black Jack is no exception. There's lots of crowd noise and the thwack of boxing gloves nestled into the narration and the music (composed by Chris Kubie) alternates from a stirring riff on America the Beautiful (I think I'm remembering that right) to more jazzy and percussive stylings. I've always liked how Live Oak incorporates the non-text words into its audiobooks (usually the same volume as the sound effects) and it's done well here.

This is the first picture book audiobook I've reviewed in quite awhile, taking me back to my Odyssey days (along with all the frantic listening I was doing at this time of year). And that puts me in mind of this year's Odyssey Award. The committee is chaired by my Odyssey "teammate," Liz Hannegan, and although I'm almost completely out of the loop in current-year listening, I'm still eager to learn what they pick.

Live Oak provided a copy of the audiobook and the picture book to me as part of Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewing program. Thanks to both.

[The photograph of the Johnson-Jeffries fight is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson by Charles R. Smith, Jr., illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Narrated by Dion Graham
Live Oak Media, 2011. 0:14

Go. Run with it. Make trouble.

"The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do." If I gathered first lines, this would be in my collection. As I am an admirer of both the late Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness, reading A Monster Calls (inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd) by Patrick Ness was a no-brainer. I was going to eye-read it, but learned somehow that the audiobook reader was Jason Isaacs (best known as the evil blond Lucius Malfoy, but also more recently as the sad-sack detective Jackson Brodie), and quickly downloaded it from Overdrive. Hearing the story read aloud packs an additional punch, I think. Well, I was weepy.

Conor O'Malley's mother has been sick for some time. The treatments are brutal, and he's often left on his own to get himself up, fed and on to school. The few times he's had to stay at his grandmother's house have not been pleasant, as her place isn't really a place for kids. School is lousy as well, despite the loyal friendship of Lily, Conor's being bullied by a particularly nasty boy named Harry. And his dad is mostly absent, living with his new family in the United States; Conor hasn't seen him in a couple years. He's plagued by a recurring nightmare.

And then the monster shows up, at 12:07 a.m. It emerges from the yew tree that guards the ancient churchyard across from his house and it's kind of threatening. It announces that it will tell Conor three true stories from its own past, and then Conor will have to tell him one. Conor's not quite sure why it's visiting him -- and he's kind of disappointed in the stories -- but he soon comes to believe that it's here to save his mum. But, of course, it's not. It's here to save Conor. But before Conor can be saved, he's got to face some deeply painful truths. Foremost: his mum's not sick, she's dying. Second, perhaps: Is Conor a (the) monster?

Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy was an amazing invention of a post-apocalyptic, apartheid-istic society trying ever harder to destroy itself. One boy stood between hope and destruction. The despair there -- particularly in the third installment -- was occasionally unbearable. In A Monster Calls, Ness shrinks his stage to one familiar to way too many people -- the inexorable death of too-young loved ones -- but it's still down to one boy and a lot of despair. Conor's situation is so realistic that it's often painful to read: A lot of us know Conor. I do.

I've read a lot of discussion about the audience for this novel. I won't give it to my dear young friend Marie whose father (also dear to me) died not quite a year ago, but I sure am curious about what she'd think about it if she did read it. I imagine that the wound is too raw at this point, even though she's faced what Conor faced, to want to read about it. She'll stick to Inheritance, thank you. But she might want to read it later. I certainly think it's a spot-on description of what it's like to live with a beloved who is dying. But will those who have directly experienced it want to read about it? And if they don't, who does want to read it? Fans like me of the two authors. We aren't disappointed.

Among it's many themes, the novel is about the power of stories and stories always feel more vivid when read aloud. Isaacs has a deep voice that he lightens slightly for Conor's and his mum's dialog. He shines as the monster, dropping his register even more and all but growling the dialog. He'll shout, commandingly, when Conor isn't properly respectful. And Isaacs knows how to tell a good story, his delivery of the monster's three tales has a tension and pacing that helps keep you listening. There is nothing cuddly about this guy; it shows no sympathy at Conor's situation. Listening to Conor's suffering as the novel ends is pretty heartwrenching, but also cathartic.

I did want to pause to process the ending -- which first felt abrupt, but almost immediately felt just right. The audiobook continues with an interview between author and narrator which -- in hindsight -- I should have taken a break before listening to it. I was still back with Conor while Ness and Isaacs were speaking. Isaacs -- who appeared to be interviewing Ness after having read the book but before he began recording it -- wanted to know if Ness had experienced such a loss himself and the author declined to answer. Even though I wanted to know this as well, his book speaks for itself, and rightly so.

Ness also reads the author's note that begins the book. He views Dowd's idea and original notes as a baton passed to him for him to run with, to do with what he liked; not to try and imagine what she would have made of it. His modesty, and yet his honest confidence in his own story, is refreshing to hear. And as much as I've enjoyed all of Dowd's books, I'm glad that Ness stayed true to himself. I like to believe that she would have approved of what he did.

The book has been amply illustrated by Jim Kay; even though I didn't miss seeing the illustrations (as occasionally happens when I listen to an illustrated book, the listening experience ably substitutes for the visual one), I wanted to provide a link to his website, where he has posted many of the artworks he created for A Monster Calls.

[The photograph of an ancient yew tree in a English churchyard was taken by Penny Mayes as part of the geograph.org.uk project. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

A Monster Calls (Inspired by a idea from Siobhan Dowd) by Patrick Ness
Narrated by Jason Isaacs
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 3:59

Monday, November 21, 2011

Perspicacity

There are few things more satisfying than just the right ending. Scott Westerfeld satisfies. While listening to the impish Alan Cumming read the third installment of Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy, I had a stupid grin on my face the whole time. Goliath, in the hands of Westerfeld and Cumming, is -- as our heroine Deryn Sharp would say -- barking brilliant! The end is so satisfying that I don't even regret that my adventures with Deryn and Alek are over ... or are they?

Goliath picks up as the Darwinist whale/ship is making its way from Constantinople to Russia. Prince Alek and Midshipman Sharp are back on board, along with Alek's advisor, the Wild Count Volger (who knows that Deryn is disguised as a boy) and the Darwinist scientist Mrs. Barlow. The two perspicacious lorises that hatched in Behemoth are here as well. The Leviathan is headed to Russia to pick up some secret cargo, along with the scientist Nikola Tesla. Tesla claims that he has a weapon, Goliath, so utterly destructive that it will bring World War I -- Westerfeld's imagined conflict between the Darwinists and the Clankers -- to a quick close.

Alek, who blames himself for the War, believes he must ally himself with Tesla, whom most everyone else views as barking mad. But Alek is also struggling with the betrayal he feels once he learns Deryn's true gender. He had told her everything, she'd been lying to him from the start. He's not sure they can be friends again. Of course, Deryn has more than friendly feelings for the crown prince, but she knows that he could never marry a commoner.

Once Tesla is aboard, the Leviathan heads for the United States, some fateful meetings with some other figures from history (William Randolph Hearst [here is an excellent example of why finding more than one source is generally a good idea!] and Pancho Villa), and a dangerous test of Tesla's Goliath. Alek and Deryn again meet the bumrag American newspaper reporter named Eddie Malone (who writes for Hearst's competitor, Joseph Pulitzer), who threatens to expose Deryn. (It's Malone's fake mustache that the Bovril the perspicacious loris is playing with in the image below.)

There is a very romantic scene on the top of the beastie in a tremendous storm, there is cagy diplomacy and tense military standoffs, there is humor (most notably with those sly, but charming lorises), Deryn saves the day with some aeronautic derring-do, and -- in Westerfeld's world, the War might indeed end by Christmas. Deryn is mouthy and brave, Alek is noble and lacking in confidence. They are utterly innocent, yet sweetly believable young lovers. What with all the globe-trotting, it's amazing to think that these books take place in about a three-month period of time.

This being my second visit with Alan Cumming and these characters (I've also listened to him read this), I realize (again?) how skilled he is at voice acting. Each character is unique without being a caricature, and everyone sounds natural (with the possible exception of Hearst's ace girl reporter, Adela Rogers, who sounds exaggeratedly femmy). Deryn's soft Scottish burr coupled with her impulsive delivery is so lovely to listen to, and it contrasts nicely with Alek's formal, German-tinged voice. I also enjoy the novel's other characters: the gravelly, vaguely menacing Count Volger, the pip-pip boffin Mrs. Barlow, the gladhanding Eddie Malone. The lorises, who repeat phrases that they've heard before in the voice of the human speaker, are consistent and deeply amusing. Cumming's command of accents is evident here: British English (various social classes), American English, Scots, German, Serbian (Russian), and Mexican. And he switches between them with what appears to be ease and confidence.

I also like Cumming's narrator voice; he provides a pleasant neutral British accent. He keeps things moving at the brisk pace Westerfeld's story demands. The excitement of Deryn and Alek's adventures are evident in the liveliness and tension of Cumming's reading.

As he did with the previous audio versions, Westerfeld reads his own afterword. I like the connection this gives me to an author. His information (what's true, what's not) is helpful, but not overly comprehensive.

The audiobook's publisher, Simon & Schuster, provides a short video of the author and narrator chatting that makes me love them even more (although I confess to a desire for Alan Cumming to wear some sleeves!). I was so glad to hear Westerfeld say that listening to the audiobook is a different story experience and how critical the narrator is to this experience. It appears that Cumming's natural speaking voice is the one he has given to Deryn. If, indeed, the adventures of Deryn and Alek continue, please let's keep Mr. Cumming working!

[Keith Thompson's illustration of Bovril the perspicacious loris was retrieved from Scott Westerfeld's website.]

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
Narrated by Alan Cumming
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011. 10:34

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Unbelievable

Pontificating briefly on our celebrity-obsessed culture. It seems to me that we get so wrapped up in the lives of the "famous" that we forget that more ordinary people have led lives of great drama and epic sweep. Louis (pronounced Louie) Zamperini -- still alive at almost 95 -- is one of these people. Thank goodness we have author/researchers like Laura Hillenbrand who can tell Louis' story with all the adventure, tension and drama of a piece of fiction and -- like she did with the tale of a horse named Seabiscuit -- she excels in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. If you just heard the bones of Louis' story, you'd think it was completely made up.

Louis was the second son of Italian immigrants, born in 1917. He grew up in Torrance, California as the local juvenile delinquent, always in trouble of one kind or another. As he reached his teen years, he began channeling that energy into running and very soon he became a world class miler, running the distance in slightly more than four minutes. He qualified to compete in the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and even though he finished 8th, he garnered the attention of Adolph Hitler.

Upon returning home, Louis continued his running career at the University of Southern California, but he quit just short of graduation. He joined the army just before Pearl Harbor, then asked to be returned to civilian life after a few months. Out a uniform for a short while, he was drafted into the Army Air Forces and assigned to bombadier training on the new B-24 bomber. By 1943, Louis -- who was one of the crew who actually dropped the bombs -- was flying missions in the Pacific. Sent on a search for another plane and crew that hadn't returned from a mission, Louis' plane crashed on May 27, 1943. Three of the crew made it to the life rafts -- Louis, the plane's pilot, and its tail gunner. The rafts drifted west for 47 days before landing in the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands. For two years as a prisoner of war, Louis endured the utmost privation, humiliation, and nearly continuous torture at the hands of a particularly sadistic sergeant named Mutsuhiro Watanabe. In the hands of Hillenbrand, even Watanabe, nicknamed "The Bird" by the Allied prisoners, has a fascinating story.

Louis survived, obviously, but the journey is riveting. Hillenbrand creates a casual, humorous tone when relating Louis' youthful highjinks and running career. She clearly describes his military training and the tightness of that B-24 crew. But when the Green Hornet crashes into the ocean, Hillenbrand ratchets up the tension, the atmosphere, the all-too-vivid descriptions of hunger, thirst, medical experimentation, beatings of all varieties to what feels like an inexorable conclusion where all prisoners of war will be executed in the last days of the War. Even though you know that Louis' outcome is a good one, Hillenbrand has placed that knot of anxiety in your stomach as you listen to this incredible journey. And it is incredible; it is simply beyond belief that this young man survived. Cue the credits. Wait: Unlike those bozos "surviving" on some faked-up island, this is all real. I loved it.

I'm most familiar with Edward Herrmann as an actor, but I have heard him read one children's book. I didn't think he's particularly well-suited to books for younger listeners (good grief! he reads the Geronimo Stilton books!), because of his natural gravitas. But he is outstanding here. He delivers the author's humor in Louis' early years, then grows serious as Louis' peril deepens.

He reads everything -- from what could be mindnumbing detail of airplanes to the way the sharks circled the life rafts -- in a committed way that makes all of it easy to listen to. As Louis loses hope -- both in Japan and in the years he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder --Herrmann's compassionate voice enables us to feel his pain. Herrmann pays such close attention to the text that I clearly heard the occasional stumble where he said the wrong word. I heard them, but I didn't mind them. He was clearly deep into the story (and so was the producer)!!

I realized as I neared the end of the book that Herrmann eschews the more emotive (dare I say acting?) method of narrating nonfiction where quotations embedded in the text (i.e., are not accompanied by "s/he said") are preceded by a dramatic pause. (Simon Vance makes this choice.) I completely see it as a way to alert the listener that a direct quote is coming, but ultimately, I didn't care whether I knew something was a quote or not. It just seems so much smoother to listen to Herrmann's way.

I spent a long weekend in Boston while I had Unbroken on the mp3 player. Usually, when I am not at home my listening slows down -- more social activity and no walking time are usually the culprits. But I couldn't put it down (or turn it off, I guess). Late one night, I had to ... turn it off. It was keeping me from sleeping! Then on the plane back to Portland, I finished midflight, with no new book to start. I started listening to the beginning again.

My few, but close, readers may have noticed that I changed my "About me" section a little bit. This is because I have a new job (same library) working as an adult nonfiction librarian. Until recently, I would have said that I would not be a good nonfiction librarian since I never read it. But this is, as I've said before, no longer true. While I've got a good bit of fiction lined up on the shelves, I'm working out what nonfiction to listen to next: Mark Kurlansky, Nathaniel Philbrick, Simon Winchester ... I like history and art/culture (absolutely no business) ... suggestions?

The question I been asked the most is will I continue to listen/read books for children and teens. And the answer to that is ... of course! In case I need any prompting to read "down" (which I don't), I was just named to the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award! I wonder if I can listen to these (if there are audio versions of them)?

[The photograph of Louis as a young miler was retrieved from the USC Trojans website. The image of the B-24 bomber is from the National Archives and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Be sure to check out many more fantastic photos -- as well as a map showing Louis' World War II journey -- from Laura Hillenbrand's website.]

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Narrated by Edward Herrmann
Books on Tape, 2010. 13:57

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's alive!

I've pretty much enjoyed everything I've read from Kenneth Oppel, although I've only listened to this one. In spite of this, I didn't have much interest in his latest novel, This Dark Endeavor [or Endeavour if you're Canadian]: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. But when I saw that the narrator was Luke Daniels -- whose reading of Days of Little Texas I really, really liked -- I thought I'd give it a listen. I enjoyed this -- mostly for its Easter-eggy in-jokes about Mary Shelley's book and other related media -- but I don't think it needs to be a series (which I understand it will be). The origins of Victor Frankenstein are made very clear here.

Konrad and Victor Frankenstein are the identical twin sons of a wealthy and enlightened couple living in an old castle near Geneva, Switzerland. Two younger boys and a distant cousin named Elizabeth Lavenza round out the happy family. Exploring the castle one day, the twins and Elizabeth discover a fake bookcase and a secret stairway into a decaying old library. When Frankenstein père discovers them there, he forbids them to enter it again. Soon after, Konrad falls mysteriously ill and after many physicians (including a Dr. Murnau) try and fail to cure him, one of the family's maids urges Victor to find a Mr. Polidori (who lives in Wollstonecraft Alley), once an alchemist, but now all but banished from Geneva. Polidori convinces Victor and Elizabeth that he can recreate the Elixir of Life, which may save Konrad's life. There are just three ingredients, all extremely dangerous to obtain (do not do too much exploring of the author's website if you don't want exposure to spoilers!).

While Victor, Elizabeth and their friend Henry Clerval (all three of these characters appear in Shelley's novel) seek the ingredients, Victor grows obsessed -- with saving Konrad, with loving Elizabeth (who loves Konrad), with concoctions that can improve humans, with the tantalizing books in his father's dark library. As a result, for a novel's protagonist, he's not a particularly appealing character. And because Victor hasn't yet created that most sympathetic of characters, his Monster, there's really no one in this novel to care about.

Sure, there are some very exciting bits -- climbing to the topmost branches of a fir tree in the midst of a windstorm in search of some special lichen [digression (so I don't forget): I just heard Alan Cumming pronounce this word "LIE-shen" while listening to Goliath], spelunking to the depths of Lake Geneva's caves for the all-but-extinct coelacanth, and a frantic escape from a character who is up to no good are all breathless and highly entertaining. But there's no heart at the center of this story.

Narrator Luke Daniels tries very hard to find that non-existent heart. This book does not have the razzmatazz narrator opportunity that Little Texas did, but Daniels still does a very good job. He's comfortable with the more formal dialogue Oppel uses to place the novel firmly in the late 18th/early 19th century. He creates slightly different voices for the twins -- Konrad is quieter and more subdued while Victor sounds impetuous and commanding. Daniels has a resonant voice that he uses to great effect, and when some adults reveal themselves to be more than a bit evil, their voices can bring you bolt upright. At the same time, Daniels can voice women in a natural way -- they sound girlish without being swishy.

Daniels shines in the action sequences, nicely building tension with volume and pacing. I am the tiniest bit claustrophobic and I got squirmy when our heroes were down in that cave with the rising water. And when the novel takes a turn to tragedy, the characters' grief is clear in his narration.

Is this a book you can only appreciate if you have some familiarity with the original material? I read it a really long time ago, but earlier this year I watched a fantastic theatrical production via the NT Live program, so the details were fairly fresh. According to the women who are hosting the new Printz blog, it is clear that Oppel took a great deal of care to make all sorts of connections to his source. Once again as I try futile-ly to enter a teenager's mind, would this book prompt a reader to seek out Mary Shelley? Or vice versa?

[You can see how a coelacanth could have swallowed Victor's arm from this photograph from Tokyo Sea Life Park. It was taken by OpenCage and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[As for the guy on the right, I doubt an introduction is needed (and it has nothing to do with this novel, but occasionally resistance is futile). It's a public-domain still from The Bride of Frankenstein and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
Narrated by Luke Daniels
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 8:02


Monday, November 7, 2011

Wobbly

I didn't have too difficult a transition after my four-year tenure listening to audiobooks for YALSA first ended in January 2010 (no doubt, some pent-up desire for particular books or genres); but for some reason, it felt like my library's purchases of new audiobooks for children and youth were few and far between this year (not decreased, but the acquisition process slowed to a glacial pace), so when I would see a new audiobook pop up in my RSS feed, I would just place a hold. Ostrich Boys showed up this way -- I knew nothing about it. I like to know a little bit (or a lot) about books I'm going to read, but this one was new in every way. And sometimes that's good. It was good here.

Keith Gray's novel -- first published in the U.K. in 2009 -- tells the story of three young men from Cleethorpes on the east coast of England: Blake, Sim and Kenny. They are mourning the death of their friend Ross, who was killed while riding his bicycle to school. Ross' service was a joke, they think, and people aren't mourning him properly, so the boys engage in a little juvenile delinquency by spray-painting the houses of several people they hold responsible for his death. Then Blake -- who is narrating the novel -- gets a brainwave: They'll take Ross to Ross! He always said he wanted to go. Ross is a dot on the map just north of England's border with Scotland, near Kirkcudbright (pronounced kir-COO-bray, which comes up in the novel) and Blake figures it will just take them a day to get there and a day to get back. In a desperate move, the boys liberate Ross' ashes right out from under his grieving family and make a dash for the train station.

And, things go wrong from there, naturally. The boys have to change trains quickly and Kenny, the dim one, leaves behind his bag -- the one with his ticket and all their money. They get tossed off the train and find themselves in the back of a rather dicey taxicab that will take them to Blackpool. They need more money for Kenny's train ticket, so Blake -- the fat one -- agrees to bungee jump for cash. They learn the police are after them because everyone in Cleethorpes is concerned that they are planning on killing themselves ... in imitation of Ross. They don't believe that their best friend did kill himself, but this is a journey of discovery and soon they are facing truths about their friendship with Ross they'd be happy not to ever acknowledge.

There's nothing surprising here, although I did appreciate the fact that the title wasn't actually referenced in the book; the author respects his readers enough to get it. (My post title does need explanation: Sim, the angry one, has a love of collective nouns, and one of the collective nouns for ostriches is a wobble. Who knew?) The journey is an entertaining mix of adventure (bungee jumping, haunted abandoned farm house complete with legend of a beheaded girl, escape via moped) and authentic sounding teen banter, with all the bickering and emotional yo-yoing that entails. The end is bittersweet (naturally), but I also felt good about the boys and how they would go on without Ross.

A new-to-me narrator, Bruce Mann, reads the novel. He has an oddly high, thin voice that's really different from the mostly resonant men I'm used to listening to. But it works for these teenaged boys; while he knows how to speak in their ebullient riffs and rhythms, they all sound just a little bit lost and lonely in Mann's interpretation. Since it's Blake telling us this story, Mann gives me a crystal clear picture of the intelligent, but shy boy he is. The stresses of the journey really begin to tell on Blake, and Mann's voice reflects this.

He does a good job of differentiating between the three boys, and I just believe that the accents are accurate to that particular corner of England. When the novel arrives in Scotland and our boys meet three comely Scots lassies, Mann rises ably to the burr (and helps us pronounce Kirkcudbright correctly).

Trolling the internet tells me that a theatre company commissioned a play of the novel which had a brief run this summer. This is good! "Children's theatre" often seems so focused on cultivating younger audience members -- witness the dreck on offer (well, not all of it is dreck ... and [digression] doesn't Lonnie Motion look a little old?) from a local company -- when in fact, it's teens who can benefit most from learning that live theatre performance can be for them.

[Perhaps Blake looked like this as he jumped off the platform in Blackpool. This photograph was taken by Ellywa and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray
Narrated by Bruce Mann
Listening Library, 2010. 6:10