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 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

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