Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Take your congeniality and shove it!

Checking our library's catalog, I see with astonishment that we own but one copy of Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty on audio. I remember really enjoying this audiobook (although not enough to go ahead in the series), and I've not been disappointed in the Printz winner's other two books either. I think she needs a editor who engages in a bit more pruning, but I love the preposterously big ideas that she bites off, masticates with humor and cleverness, and spits out in the form of entertaining, yet thoughtful fiction. Beauty Queens is hilariously funny, with sharp, social commentary (if, yes, a little heavy-handed) under the delicious candy coating.

Any description will not do Bray's imagination justice. A planeload of teenage girls all participating in the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant, crash-lands on a deserted island somewhere in the Caribbean (I think). Just a handful of contestants survive. Miss Texas, Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, vies with Miss New Hampshire, Adina Greenberg, for leadership. Sensible Adina thinks they should be concentrating on acquiring food and shelter and pursuing rescue, while pageant-crazy Taylor wants to stay focused on the competition. The girls initially vote to follow Taylor. As time passes, we get to know each contestant and watch as their secrets are exposed, hidden strengths are revealed, and their consciousness raised. They can look after themselves quite well, thank you, despite the corporate entity, The Corporation, which plans on using the island (and the contestants) to legitimize trade with a tinpot dictator with a stuffed (live?) lemur and an Elvis complex. The Corporation also has a slightly fishy relationship with the founder of Miss Teen Dream, Ladybird Hope.

Much else is spoofed as well. The narrative is interrupted by commercials for various products peddled by The Corporation, including Lady 'Stache Off, DiscomfortWear, and MaxiPad Pets; and previews of reality television shows and other entertainment created by The Corporation, such as Captains Bodacious IV: Badder and More Bodaciouser. Each Teen Dream contestant's Fact Sheet is presented. For the many references that those of us whose lives are not deeply influenced by The Corporation, a series of footnotes help to keep us informed.

I'll admit that I lost track of what was going on on more than one occasion. It's too long. Characters blurred. Some of the jokiness and satire run well past their sell-by date. It needs tightening. Hence my call for a less-nurturing editor. I was interested in learn in the author's note that Bray's editor, David Levithan, essentially gave her the idea to run with. Which means -- to me -- that neither of them have the distance required to approach the book with a tough, gimlet eye.

Bray reads her book. This can be a minefield, but I think she pulls it off. Her theatrical background is strongly in evidence in her ability to keep the lenghthy narrative moving and create a number of distinct characters. Now, her voicings are all pretty cartoonish (Miss Texas is seriously twangin', Ladybird Hope is right out of Wasilla, Alaska, Miss California is a Valley Girl [once she's exposed], Miss Mississippi (Alabama?) is a empty-headed baby-talker, etc.), but so are her characters. Bray's consistent, though, and the exaggerated characterizations help a listener keep the large cast straight.

She's most brilliantly funny reading the footnotes (which are indicated by a "bellboy" ding), and the commercials. Bray's in full snark mode and for those of us who appreciate what she is satirizing, listening to her is deeply enjoyable. Throughout the narrative, it's clear how much she is enjoying herself reading, and I don't mean to imply that she's on an ego trip.

The audio production is excellent. Music cues are used to great effect. Miss Mississippi (Alabama? I did have trouble telling them apart.) introduces each disc with a whispery clueless commentary -- I can't exactly remember, but along the lines of "Disc 2. I like the number 2, don't you?" There's an "interview" with the author/narrator at the end that continues in the satiric vein of the novel. The only thing I didn't like was the very lengthy acknowledgments, where she does come across as a bit glad-hand-y.

The comparisons to William Golding's Lord of the Flies are everywhere, and inevitable, I guess. I read this book a lifetime ago, and was probably too young to appreciate it. (Is it a book to "appreciate?") We own the audiobook. It's short. I'm curious now.

[Frida Kahlo might have been a Lady 'Stache Off client, but I doubt it. Her Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is owned by The University of Texas and this image of it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Narrated by the author
Scholastic Audio, 2011. 14:30

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