Saturday, April 28, 2012

Slippage

#$%^&* Blogger has "updated" its writing/posting interface, so I've spent some time getting slapped around and figuring out how to do the things I no longer know how to do.  (Did we ask for an update?!*)  In addition, I'm scheduling a few posts for the last week of June (which, of course, I had to work out how to do in the new Blogger) when it will be Audiobook Week at Devourer of Books.  So, it'll be quieter here for a little bit.  (Not that it's ever very noisy ...)

I also spent a long time listening to Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, recommended to me by Rachael.  She works in our fiction room (called Popular Library), where I am fortunate to be able to hang out on Sundays, and I've noticed that we have similar reading tastes.  She suggested it, it was on the shelf and so I put it in the ears.  A few days later, I learned that my favorite teen reader had stayed up all night to finish it.  All portents were good! 

It's 2054 and historians at Oxford are able to study their preferred period of history by traveling back in time to experience it firsthand. Balliol Professor James Dunworthy is a 20th century historian who has traveled himself, but now he mentors a young student, Kivrin Engles.  Kivrin wants to go back to Medieval times, and despite Dunworthy's warnings that it's too risky to travel that far back, Kivrin has connected with his academic rival to help her make the jump.  She'll leave at Christmastime to go back to 1320 because the calendar days can be more accurately measured during the holiday.  In two weeks, she'll head back to the "drop" to be picked up, hopefully full of information about Oxford and the countryside in the years before the society went to hell because of the arrival of the Black Death in 1348.  She has a "corder" disguised to look like a fingerbone, so she can record her discoveries.  She decides to call this recording the Doomsday Book, in honor of the Domesday Book, the 11th century documentation of English society in the years following the arrival of William the Conqueror.

When Kivrin is shipped off seven centuries, Dunworthy has to wait for a few hours while the technician, Badri Choudury, pinpoints the drop and the amount of slippage in time.  But when Badri shows up at the pub where Dunworthy is waiting, he murmurs something about the wrong time (I can't remember the exact quote) and collapses.  Soon, Oxford is in the midst of an epidemic and is quarantined.  Dunworthy has to wait for Badri to recover before he knows what happened to Kivrin.  But whether Badri will recover is uncertain.

Kivrin, meanwhile, has not landed in the place that Badri told her she would land.  And she's suffering from a feverish delirium as well.  Through the kindness of a village priest, Father Roche, she ends up in the care of a family of women:  Mother, daughters Agnes and Rosamund, and suspicious mother-in-law.  It's Christmas time and the women are waiting for the men of the family, who apparently have been detained by some legal matter.  Unfortunately, Kivrin was taken away from the drop before she could determine where it was, so unless she can get Father Roche to take her there, she won't be waiting in two-weeks time to be picked up.  That may not matter, as only Badri, on the 21st-century side, can tell where she was dropped .

Do you think that reference to the Black Plague was accidental?

I loved this book.  I first heard of Connie Willis just a few months ago, when the audiobook of her All Clear was named to the 2012 Listen List.  I do like a good time-travel story and so does Connie Willis as she has returned to this premise several times since.  I think Doomsday Book was the novel where she introduced the 21st century time travelers of Oxford.  Everything about this book was engaging -- the characters are fully realized human beings (and a lot of them are dead by the end of the novel), the historical detail seems impeccable, the building tension of the two time streams is exquisite as we go back and forth not knowing precisely the catastrophe but knowing that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.  Some sections will make you laugh out loud (academic politics never grows old), others will make you weep. And Willis satisfies immensely by using every hint she drops, every ounce of foreshadowing pays off.  I had it in my ears for over two weeks but never felt it was dragging.

As a generally non scifi reader, I found it amusing that in 1992 Willis simply did not see the possibility of a mobile phone.  Professor Dunworthy spends significant time in the novel trying to find telephones (and, occasionally, a "trunk" [long-distance] line).  Sure, the telephones are picture phones, but they are still very much connected to a wire in the wall.  On the other hand, the novel spent absolutely no effort trying to describe what made time travel possible, thank god.

Jenny Sterlin is the reader.  I actually have the opposite reaction to the AudioFile review finding her underprepared and lacking the "chops to communicate" the text.  She's a flawed reader, no doubt.  Her husky voice can sound tired, she gets juicy, her pronunciations are inconsistent, and sometimes I simply cannot understand her (I think that the Medieval mother's name was Heloise and mother-in-law's was Hermione).  But, oh my goodness, the woman knows how to pause.  She knows how to linger over some text and how to hurry over other sections.  When Kivrin is in distress (and the book -- taking its own sweet time getting there -- is so vivid as she fights to the last), Sterlin is riveting, with a voice full of compassion and tension.  I could not stop listening, blowing through the last four discs in a day.

Sterlin's characterizations are also terrific, handling a huge cast of characters, and two centuries, with distinction and realism.  I wasn't crazy about her characterizations of two of the novel's younger characters -- the spoiled child Agnes who was just a bit precious, and the teenaged Colin who ends up helping Professor Dunworthy in unexpected ways.  All his dialogue sounded wildly overenthusiastic, although I can still hear him declare the Black Death as "apocalyptic."  Sterlin even has to conduct authentic-sounding dialogue in the vaguely Germanic Old English, before Kivrin's automatic translator kicks in.  I've liked her work before, but I thought this was a pretty bravura performance.

There's an art to audiobook production that doesn't show up very often, but I heard it here (perhaps because it was published before audiobooks really took off and it was possible to devote real attention to production).  Nearly every one of the 21 discs breaks took place at a moment of high tension, and one (the start of Disc 19 [I think]) delivers a punch to the gut that made me pause so I could collect myself and start over.

I'm so looking forward to the next in Willis' world of Oxford time travelers, which Rachael reports is hilarious.  I think I'm going to travel to this year's ALA Annual by train, and may take the Blackout/All Clear duet to (eye) read during the many hours rattling south.  Doesn't that sound civilized?

*OK, so there's spellcheck now, I don't have to head into the html side to move images around, and it appears that I can easily caption images, but for the most part I hate it when "they" update stuff.  I still can't find anything in the "new" Word.)

[The Birmingham page from the Domesday Book is from Birmingham 1066-1625 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Narrated by Jenny Sterlin
Recorded Books (A SciFi Audio Production [an old imprint I'm presuming], 2000.  26:30


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Under the sea

When I peruse the offerings at Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer page, I like to take the opportunity to read both the familiar as well as something that stretches my boundaries (although there remain places I will not go: L. Ron Hubbard). For my most recent choice, I found an author I'd never heard of who writes in a genre that I enjoy: riffing on fairy tales (adult version), even though I don't count the narrator as a personal favorite. The stretch here is the original tale: Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The story of a young girl who sacrifices her voice for the (inconstant) love of a prince. Ick. Carolyn Turgeon's Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale arrives with a lot of baggage. Will the twist take away that bad taste of misogyny? Well, sort of.

Although it's difficult, try to erase the picture of Disney's mermaid from your head (also that calypso tune). (I realize I'm not helping here, but neither is the author with that scary mermaid image at her website.) Despite the cover image, Turgeon's mermaid has hair the color of the moon and I feel confident does not wear a seashell bra. Does that help?

OK. A young woman named Margrethe (pronounced MAR-greta) has been stashed safely in a convent in the northern part of her father's Northern Kingdom to keep her out of danger while the Northern and Southern Kingdoms brandish their swords at one another. She's standing at the edge of the desolate sea one day when she is astonished to see a woman carrying an unconscious man through the water and onto the beach. The mermaid glances at Margrethe and beckons her to save the man. The sisters of the convent bring the man to safety and nurse him back to health. When he awakens, he believes that Margrethe was the woman who pulled him from the wreck of his sinking ship and brought him to shore. He heals quickly -- although a shimmer remains on his skin where the mermaid touched him -- and leaves the convent. Only afterwards does Margrethe learn that the young man was Prince Christopher, heir to the Southern Kingdom.

Lenia is the mermaid, youngest of the daughters of the mermaid queen. On her 18th birthday, every mermaid is given the opportunity to visit the land of those ugly two-legged creatures who can't live in the beautiful ocean and Lenia looks forward to seeing the creatures -- who have fascinated her from afar -- up close. Swimming to the surface on her birthday, Lenia encounters a sinking ship and curiously watches men die. When she spots Christopher though, she knows she must rescue him. But she remains haunted by him and soon consults the Sea Witch. You may join him on earth, the Witch explains, but you will walk on your new legs feeling as if you were walking on knives and -- by the way -- I'll need your tongue to complete the potion. Lenia chooses the prince and soon is silently ensconced in his bed even though he doesn't remember that she was the one who saved him.

The twist, I suppose, is that this is also Margrethe's story. She, too, has fallen for Prince Christopher and she escapes the Northern Kingdom and proposes a political marriage, one that will unite their warring countries. Unfortunately, she arrives after Lenia -- who has become pregnant -- and must use all her diplomatic and romantic skills to ensure that the marriage goes forward.

It's a given that Christopher is a shallow rat and a bit of a cypher, which means that his sex appeal to both women seems a bit of a plot problem. To add insult, neither Lenia or Margrethe are particularly appealing characters themselves. It's hard for a feminist to ignore Lenia's doormat, er character, while Margrethe -- who at least operates in a world where she understands that bigger things happen -- is also rather conniving in her insistence that she be the bride. In her defense, her solution to the dilemma of who Christopher will marry is clever if cruel, and I came away confident that the right person would be wearing the pants in the united kingdoms.

Where the book excels is when it vividly describes its natural world. Margrethe spends a large part of the novel swathed in furs because it is so darn cold and bleak where she lives. Lenia's ocean home is a place of darting fish (which often get popped in a mermaid's mouth when she's feeling a bit peckish), mysterious and cool. And when Linea comes ashore in Christopher's warm and sun-filled kingdom, she is astonished at the light. I experienced such a sense of place in the novel that I was almost willing to overlook the rather unpleasant people living there.

Rosalyn Landor reads the novel, which alternates its point-of-view between The Mermaid and The Princess. She has a relatively deep, resonant voice for a woman and she created two natural-sounding women for this novel. Lenia was a little more conventionally feminine (and for more than half of the novel, her voice is inside her head, of course), and Margrethe sounded more controlled and regal. Landor's men speak very far down her vocal register, and -- as a result, they all seem overly formal and deliberative.

Landor's narrative experience shows in her emotive line readings and the varying pace she sets as the story builds tension. But despite her formidable skills, I tend to avoid books that she's narrated. I hear an affected quality to her voice; much as I love those English accents, occasionally she's just teddibly, teddibly British. Often her voice is pitched so low (volume-wise) that it's hard to hear her and when you crank up the volume, she's got a painful sibilance. Even though she narrates a lot of books that I like to read, the last time I listened to her was nearly three years ago. Her reading here has not convinced me to seek out some of those books.

I think my all-time favorite fairy tale is East of the Sun and West of the Moon (another Scandinavian story), which I remember reading over and over again in my well-thumbed copy of Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book. It was the inspiration for Edith Pattou's terrific East (ooh! maybe I'll listen to it), and several other teen novels. But not for adults?

Blackstone Audio thoughtfully provided me a copy of Mermaid as part of the Solid Gold Reviewers program at Audiobook Jukebox. Thanks.

[Well, find a Wikimedia image and you learn all sorts of things. The image of the statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbor is still under copyright, and thus shouldn't be in Wikimedia Commons. The heirs of sculptor Edvard Ericksen evidently try to keep a tight rein on the image (even though the Harbor statue is not the original). This photograph of the statue in 1913 was retrieved from the website maintained by the artist's granddaughter.]

Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale by Carolyn Turgeon
Narrated by Rosalyn Landor
Blackstone Audio, 2012. 8:00

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The next year

What happens after something momentous is usually not the stuff of story. Public interest dissipates and the people to whom that momentous thing happened are left to pick up and go on, out of the glare of television lights and political grandstanding. The events of 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas (illustrated, most famously perhaps, below) are over in Kristin Levine's The Lions of Little Rock. Not only have the television cameras gone, but so has the National Guard. The community, battered and bruised, is left to carry on. In a moment of particular enlightenment, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided that rather than integrate, he would deprive all children of Little Rock an education. In the fall of 1958, he closed all the public high schools.

Among the families left to figure out what to do with their teenage daughter are the Nisbets. The youngest daughter, Marlee, is only in junior high, but she's got problems of her own. She finds it very difficult to speak with all but a few close friends and family and she's not looking forward to another year of having to explain herself, so to speak. On the first day of school, a new girl comes to Marlee in the cafeteria and Marlee, to her surprise, asks her to sit down. Liz slowly brings Marlee out of her shell, teaching her some ways to overcome her fear of speaking. The two girls plan an oral presentation on Arkansas history, but when the day comes, Marlee learns that Liz won't be attending West Side Junior High any more.

Summoning all her courage, Marlee makes the presentation on her own. Later she learns that Liz was ejected from school because she is black. (I think I'm remembering the chronology correctly.) The Nisbet's Negro maid, Betty Jean, explains to Marlee how that works. At first Marlee is shocked, but she comes to realize that Liz was a true friend and she uses all her courage to try and maintain that friendship. She learns about integration and joins forces with adults -- black and white -- working to re-open the Little Rock schools. It's a book for kids, so yeah, Marlee learns a great deal about herself in the process, ultimately finding the strength to speak for herself.

Levine successfully walks a fine line here (something I didn't think she did in her previous book) of telling the story of a white heroine who doesn't fix things for the black people around her. Yes, she saves Liz and herself and a black family from a bomb tossed into their living room, but mostly this book is about how white Arkansans stood up against the supporters of segregation for their own benefit. At the end of this novel, the schools are open again but there still aren't any black kids going to Marlee's junior high.

I enjoyed this for what it is -- a sparkling piece of historical fiction with an appealing young girl at its center. Levine weaves the larger picture of history nicely into Marlee's story, and I learned a whole lot (something I like to do when I read this genre) about what happened after the larger events of 1957. It got perilously close to jumping the shark when Marlee finds herself locked in the trunk of a nasty older boy's car, but it recovered. This is no doubt because the core of the novel is not its events, but that journey that Marlee takes from one with no voice to one who learns how loud her voice can be. (How curious that the next book I listened to is also one about a young girl's voice [and can I say how little that website reflects the contents of that book!].)

Julia Whelan narrates the story. I've only heard her read once before, and I liked her. She reads Marlee with a quiet intelligence that is just right for the character. When Marlee recites prime numbers (her technique for building the courage to speak), I can hear a little edge of panic in Whelan's voice. She reads Liz with a little more intensity that provides a good contrast with Marlee.

Whelan runs into a little trouble as the cast of characters widened. Some of them had Southern accents (I tried to keep Bill Clinton in my head for comparison purposes), but these came and went: They mostly arrived in characters under stress and then they went away again. Neither Marlee nor Liz spoke with a drawl, yet their parents did. Now that I'm not an award-giving superlistener, this really didn't bother me, yet it kept coming across my consciousness while listening.

The title of this novel refers metaphorically (I'm pretty darn sure) to Marlee and Liz. The Zoo is also where Liz has Marlee practice her Arkansas history presentation to its various denizens. Unfortunately, I usually had a picture in my head of some ghastly 1950s zoo -- with the titular lions pacing back and forth in some cement, barred box -- during these sections. I hope young readers/listeners have better images in their heads.

[The photograph of Elizabeth Eckford bravely walking into Central High School in September 1957 was taken by Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was retrieved from the National Park Service. Hazel Bryan is the as-famous white girl behind Elizabeth. A cautionary tale for all those seeking their 15 minutes. They might last longer than you like.]

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
Narrated by Julia Whelan
Listening Library, 2012. 8:22

More audio goodness

I've been remiss in linking to the hard-working librarians who post AudioSynced links each and every month! Check out what happened in March by making your way to Abby the Librarian!

Fun news about the Tournament of Audiobooks and a chance to predict some of the winners at the Audies.