Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Just a little Odd

There's a small universe of narrators to which I would listen to anything they read, and I think I'm going to have to add Neil Gaiman to this list. Of course, Gaiman only reads his own books -- which shrinks the offerings a little, but that's not necessarily a bad thing since my brain is already spilling over with all the audiobooks I want to listen to. Odd and the Frost Giants is a little slip of a tale that Gaiman wrote to celebrate World Book Day (in 2008?). There's something intriguing about the fact that Gaiman's most recent chapter books for children have characters named Bod and Odd.

Odd is an unlucky boy. His dad handled horses for conquering Vikings, and he died from hypothermia after saving one of his charges. His mother -- originally captured by the berserkering Norsemen from her home in Scotland -- has remarried someone named Fat Alfred, who really doesn't like Odd.
The boy badly injured his leg while chopping wood and now he can't walk without pain. And the exceedingly long winter is making Odd particularly cranky. He heads to his family's isolated old cabin to wait out the cold. A fox appears at his door one day and Odd understands that he must follow it.

Odd and the fox are trailed by an eagle flying overhead, and after much arduous walking, they come across an enormous bear who has trapped himself while greedily scooping honey out of a cleft in a tree. Odd frees the bear and soon discovers that the animals are bespelled Norse gods. Odin (eagle), Thor (bear), and Loki (fox) have been tricked by the Frost Giants, who have succeeded in removing them from their home in Asgard. Odd decides to help them and the rest of the novella is a funny, gentle tale of a clever boy outwitting those who are bigger and stronger.

I like this cover better. It's the original (?) edition, published for World Book Day. It just makes the novel look a whole lot more interesting than that thick blue framed image.

Gaiman packs so much into this little story -- perfect little character studies, precise descriptions of the natural landscape, sly humor and even a gentle lesson about who is more powerful -- the smart one or the strong one. And with the author to read it aloud to you, well ... it goes down easy. His distinctive voice is very pleasant to listen to, he reads his work smoothly and with lots of expression. The three Norse gods each has an individual voice; I really liked the harshness with which Gaiman shouted eagle Odin's single-word pronouncements. The Frost Giant's loud bluster is electronically altered (unnecessarily, in my opinion), but he still sounds like a huge, very dim creature.

I listened to Odd for a brief break in a very long audiobook I've been working through that also happens to be read by its author. Which has led me to think about what makes a good author/narrator:
  • We understand you are a writer, not a performer. Read with emotion, without emoting.
  • Familiarity shouldn't breed contempt. An author should read his/her work as if it were as fresh as the day they wrote it.
  • Be present as you read. Your every word might not be gold nuggets, but we want to hear them anyway.
  • Accept your limitations (we do). Yes, your characters might have a distinguishing accent or vocal mannerisms. But if you can't do this, please don't try.
I think most listeners who listen a lot understand we're having a unique experience listening to an author read the book. It's not that our expectations are lower, they are just different. But we can be demanding when the author just isn't cutting it.

Gaiman exceeds expectations, and is as good a reader of his own work as Philip Pullman. Who else is good? Hmmm ... I went through the reading log I've been keeping since 2003, and I've listened to 17 authors read their work. Six of these were memoirs of various sorts, which is a different kettle of fish, reading-wise. Of the other 11, Sherman Alexie and Louis Sachar stand out with Gaiman and Pullman; while Catherine Gilbert Murdock and Stephanie Hemphill should simply not do it again. So, of the 11, there are just two who really fail ... I'd say this belies the truism that authors shouldn't read their own material. Most authors bring idiosyncrasies to their readings that would be unacceptable if they were reading another's work, but they seem to be just fine reading their own.

Most of the time ... [dum, da dum dum]

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
Narrated by the author
HarperAudio, 2009. 1:46

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