Sunday, November 25, 2012

Artful

I recently read somewhere that Terry Pratchett is now dictating his books to an amanuensis making his lively and hilarious output even more appropriate for listening consumption.  This is certainly the case with his most recent book to hit our shores, Dodger, a Victorian romp which was fun from start to finish. Pratchett's story of a young scamp who makes good was a feast for at least three senses - ears, (mind's) eyes, and nose (although the smells so accurately described are not particularly festive).

The eponymous Dodger is a tosher, scouring London's stinky sewers for the treasures lost through its grates. He's pretty good at it, but he also fortunate enough to have made a friend of a Jewish watchmaker, Solomon, who offers him a safe, dry place to sleep (and store his stash) as long as he walks Solomon's incredibly oderiferous mutt, the aptly named Onan (and to click on that link will spoil one of Pratchett's silly jokes as the novel comes to a close). Late one night, raining cats and dogs, Dodger emerges from one of his toshing expeditions and is confronted by a scene that sets his blood aboil -- a young woman has leapt from a moving carriage, followed by two large men, who then begin beating her.  Seeing Dodger, she pleads for him to save her, and Dodger -- never one to disobey a beautiful (if bedraggled) lady -- complies. Even though he is ably holding his own in his fight with the two blackguards, when two other gentlemen appear in the street and enter the fray, the villains leap into their carriage and dash away. The two gentlemen prevail upon Dodger to help the lady to the warm and dry house of one of them nearby, and Dodger is introduced to the first of his new benefactors:  Charley Dickens and Henry Mayhew.

Secretly, Dodger vows to protect the lady (who later adopts the name of Simplicity), even though that revenge may bring down the British government.  Along the way, he encounters a number of familiar (or not so) characters (Sir Robert Peel, Joseph Bazalgette and Angela Burdett-Coutts, plus Her Majesty the Queen) who -- charmed and intrigued by this ambitious young man whose wit and cleverness enables him to overcome his humble beginnings -- aid him in his elaborate plan of revenge. It doesn't hurt that Dodger manages to disarm a certain barber who was interested in giving him a rather close shave, making him a hero to one and all in early Victorian London.  The city is a vivid character in itself -- the crowded streets, the unhealthy tenements, the quiet streets of the rich, and its sewers. Oh, its sewers -- I could feel and smell the muck, goo and well, shit.

This has to be among my favorite books (read or heard) this year. Like another one of his "non-Discworld" stories, Pratchett manages to address some serious subjects without ever losing his sense of the ridiculous.  For example, I heard the dog's name, said to myself, "isn't that ...?" and knew, I knew, the punchline was coming.  And when it did, it was completely worth the wait.  The puns and wit fly fast and furious; one hopes that Pratchett's next book will be about the redoubtable Solomon as he proves a font of knowledge and an excellent sidekick.  Dodger's rise is meteoric (he's kind of like a Horatio Alger hero), but it is well-deserved: his code is honorable (even if he just can't resist a gewgaw or two from Miss Burdett-Coutts' collection), and his cleverness is rightfully rewarded. He falls hard for Miss Simplicity (the weakest part of the story), but there's no doubt of a happily ever-after.

Like nearly all of Pratchett's novels, this one is narrated by Stephen Briggs. (Here, here and here is where I've heard him read Pratchett before.)  He's good; he's an excellent match with Pratchett's rapid-fire jokes, whiplashing plot developments and all-around silliness. The humor is always there, but there's also an underlying compassion and love of the characters. There's never a word out of place, and his characters are varied and consistently delivered. He's particularly good with Solomon's Yiddish inflections, as well as those of Dodger's fellow toshers. There is a scene where Dodger is interviewing his peers, along with a group of rather dim prostitutes, about whether they might have seen Simplicity's assailants that is just brilliant.

But, you know, I'd really like to hear someone else read this. Briggs' style doesn't change much from Pratchett to Pratchett -- he reads them all with that punchy, rapid delivery. It's funny, it's successful, but it's time for someone else.  I don't know who I'd suggest -- oh wait, yes I do.  Alan Cumming!  Barking brilliant (if I may say so myself)!  There are a couple Pratchett books that aren't narrated by Briggs, maybe I'll give one of them a whirl.

[Yes, I could have given you a picture of Dickens, or Peel, or Burdett-Coutts, or even Onan (well, perhaps not, but the dog is on the cover of the British version), but I opted for my very own Dodger: a three-legged cat who was named because he wasn't ... artful.]

Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Narrated by Stephen Briggs
Dreamscape Media, 2012.  10:31

Thursday, November 15, 2012

GEN 11

I'm pretty sure I must have read (or had read to me) Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was a young 'un, but all of my memories of this story are that of the fairly execrable 1968 movie with Dick Van Dyke, including the theme song -- the chorus of which I could probably sing in its entirety.  I liked listening to this knowing about James Bond (who I didn't know about in 1968), and really understanding how Fleming's imagination created both. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang includes Bond-ish villains, a Q-like leading man, and a very large explosion.

Inventor Caractacus Potts, retired from the Royal Navy, lives in genteel poverty with his wife (Mimsie) and twins Jeremy and Jemima. The family experiences an unexpected windfall when Commander Potts invents a candy called Toot Sweets and sells it to a local candy magnate named Lord Skrumshus. With some of their money, Potts purchases a junker, a dilapidated old heap called a Paragon Panther. Jeremy and Jemima are intrigued by the car's license plate, GEN 11. For several weeks, Commander Potts tinkers away at the car, and on the day it's fully repaired, the Potts decide to go on an outing to the beach. As the car starts up, it makes a unique sound -- "chitty chitty" as the starter turns over followed by a loud "bang bang" from the tailpipe and as the family motors off, the twins officially christen the car (cue the orchestra).

Alas, every other family has decided that they are going to the beach as well, and the Potts soon find themselves in a huge traffic jam (and this was 1964).  But when a knob on the dashboard lights up saying "pull this, stupid" [I think I'm remembering it correctly], and Commander Potts obeys ... well, you know what happens.

The child-snatching in the novel isn't nearly as creepy as that of the movie which makes it more all-ages, I think.  I liked that a novelistic circle is closed when the denouement takes place in a candy shop (albeit a French one). I liked that the book never comes out and tells us that GEN 11 = genie. I liked that that is all there is ... 110 pages, two hours twenty minutes.  I liked learning that the original illustrations were from John Burningham (Mr. Helen Oxenbury).  I found it quite touching that it was -- in a way -- Fleming's final gift to his young son.  And I loved listening to it read by someone clearly channeling a rambunctious bachelor uncle entertaining his nieces and nephews.

Regular readers here know my fondness for British drama (in movies, television and books), but I'm not at all keen on British sitcoms. So, I'd never heard of Andrew Sachs, the narrator, who found fame in a television program that I found not teddibly funny at all, Fawlty Towers. Sachs reads the novel beautifully. He has a warm speaking voice, and he reads the story quickly; but he never forgets that he's telling an immensely ridiculous story, so the narrator's asides are all perfectly timed. There's plenty of opportunity for over-the-top character studies in the novel, and Sachs goes to town with confident Caractacus, dense yet menacing mobsters, a sad sack used-car dealer, timid Mimsie, adventurous twins, and M. Bon-Bon.  But he is, in fact, most perfect as the car -- his wheezy "chitty chitty" followed by the pop of the "bang bang" will forever replace the lyrics of that song.

The opening credits of the audiobook declare that it is published by Imagination Studio, which evidently is an imprint of Listening Library (and this audiobook was published long enough ago that Jim Dale provides that audiobooks-are-great pitch he used to do at the end). It has the best use of generic music I have heard in a while (the last time was this, which I also enjoyed) -- with a short sprightly, kind-of circus-like clip between chapters, each one slightly different.

I've never been much of a Bond fan, but the Ian Fleming website tells me that there are new audiobooks of all of the Bond stories, each read by a different actor. Alas, these are not the editions available at my library, which are read by the prolific Simon Vance. I'm sure Vance is very good, but Dan Stevens, Bill Nighy, Damien Lewis!

[This image is one of John Burningham's from the original 1964 edition, subtitled The Magical Car. Could it be true that my library still owns four copies of this nearly 50-year-old book (I'm not at a place where I can check this)?]

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
Narrated by Andrew Sachs
Imagination Studio (Listening Library), 2003.  2:19

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weather underground

Like many other readers, Rebecca Stead was not on my radar as a children's author to watch until 2009, when I read her soon-to-be Newbery-Medal-winning When You Reach Me. Ever since, I've had her first book, First Light, on the one-day-I'll-read-this list and --  as I've been relying on downloadables to keep me in audiobooks (due to the unbelievably annoying ongoing unfixability of my computer) -- it rose to the top because it was available for checkout when I needed one.

Peter Solemn lives with his parents in a top-floor apartment in New York City. His father is a glacialogist specializing in climate change, and midway through the school year he receives a grant to study the melting ice in Greenland. Peter and his mother are invited along. At the age of 12, Peter is just starting to experience the debilitating headaches that have plagued his mother all his life, only Peter's headaches are accompanied by mysterious visions.

Thea (pronounced TAY-ah) lives near a huge underground lake in a place called Gracehope. She's been thinking more and more about the legend of how Gracehope came into being -- founded by a persecuted people who first fled England for Greenland, who decades later were forced into the settlement beneath the ice.  Thea wonders if it's time for the people of Gracehope to surface again, but the women in charge of the community have expressly forbidden it. But someone has left a map for Thea to find, a map that shows the path to the surface; and Thea -- along with her first cousin Matthias (the 'h' is silent in his name as well) -- takes her beloved sled dogs, the Chikchu, and heads off. A terrible accident occurs and Peter -- out on a trek of his own across the frozen landscape -- hears her dogs crying.

Stead's (rhymes with the past tense of read) story is told in alternating third-person voices.  From the beginning, you know that the paths of the two protagonists are going to cross (and that some revelations will arise from that meeting), but Stead doles out the clues in a naturalistic and slightly suspenseful way. These seemed overly obvious to me, but I think young readers will find them worth pursuing. The characters are fully realized -- all the way down to more minor ones like Peter's quirky friend Miles and his father's Inuit research assistant Jonas. The unusual setting is skillfully presented; I had a complete picture of what Gracehope (with its streets and walls of ice and that huge lake) looked like. The scene where Peter attempts to rescue the sled dogs in a blinding blizzard is tense and vivid in my memory.

I was impressed by Stead's ability to interweave the issue of the melting Greenland icecap into the story.  There are several scenes depicting the scientific process that are as interesting as the fantasy world of Gracehope.

Thankfully (although not surprisingly, Listening Library knows how to do audiobooks right), the novel is read by two narrators, David Ackroyd (heard here and here by me) and Coleen Marlo (here). Ackroyd really sounds too old and tired for Peter (if this is indeed him, he's over 70 years old), although he definitely has the narrator skills of natural characterization, varied pacing appropriate to the text, and authentic emotional interpretation. Marlo reads Thea's chapters with a naturalness and authority, providing flawless mini character studies for Gracehope's denizens -- particularly the many strong women of the First Line (descendants of the original Grace). Gracehope-ites all speak with a standard English accent, while both narratives were read with American inflections.  Unfortunately, neither narrator seems completely comfortable with the English accent, so the dialogue always sounds a bit stiff and artificial.

A word (well, several words) on downloadables. Normally I don't like listening to them as much as CDs, but maybe my ear is just getting used to them (or I'm making the best of a bad situation). They don't sound as tinny as they once did and lately I've not experienced the occasional glitches like the end of a disc cut off. Half of my audiobooks since mid-July (the date of the computer disaster) have been digital. I still listen to CDs at bedtime (a different book), which -- at 15-20 minutes per night -- can make for an awfully long time from beginning to end.  I want my Mac back! :'-(

[Among the many interesting things on the First Light website is an info bite telling me that Greenland forbids the importation of any dogs in order to keep their sled dogs' line pure. I wasn't ever really clear on how Stead's imagined Chikchu were different from Peter's sled dogs (except that they were different), but here's a 1912 photo of some generic sled dog puppies from the Library of Congress, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

First Light by Rebecca Stead
Narrated by David Ackroyd and Coleen Marlo
Listening Library, 2010.  7:04

I've been to London to visit the Queen

Anne Perry is almost frightening prolific, with about 70 books under her belt since she was first published in 1979. (Uncharitably, I simply cannot think of her without remembering this.)  I used to read her religiously, but now it's more of an occasional indulgence (about one book a year for the last ten years). Although I don't feel like she's going through the motions, the 25th (!) in her series featuring Victorian London policeman Thomas Pitt and his upper-class wife Charlotte, Buckingham Palace Gardens, offers few surprises.

A few books ago, Thomas Pitt ran afoul of his superiors at Scotland Yard and was assigned to investigate crimes against the state with Victor Narraway and the Special Branch. Early one morning in 1893, he is called by Narraway to Buckingham Palace. The bloody body of a prostitute -- throat and abdomen viciously slit open -- has been found in a linen closet. Edward, the Prince of Wales, had hosted a party the night before: entertaining four Victorian entrepreneurs eager for the Prince to support their grand plan to build a railroad stretching from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt.  Once the wives had gone to bed, the leader of the group, Cahoon Dunkeld (I continue to admire Perry for the intriguing names she provides her characters), arranged for a visit with some prostitutes. Two left, one did not. The Queen is due back in a few days and this unpleasant mess must be cleared up before her arrival.

Pitt and Narraway quickly conclude that the murder is one of the three railroad men (not Cahoon), but the evidence is contradictory and the gentlemen themselves obstructive. Even with the help of his housemaid Gracie, brought to the Palace to be Pitt's eyes and ears on the inside, Pitt cannot solve the puzzle before another death occurs.

Perry is clearly deeply enmeshed in her history, and she likes to explore the class divide (epitomized by the marriage of son-of-a-gamekeeper Pitt with socially connected Charlotte). She explores the internal lives (occasionally ad nauseum) of her characters, but also enjoys concocting an intricate puzzle. I've felt in reading the last few that her books are sometimes weighted down by everything she throws into them. I had this feeling in Buckingham Palace Gardens, while at the same time the denouement felt really rushed and overly reliant on coincidence. There's also some oddly enlightened Victorians in this novel who want to leave Africa for the Africans. I'm not even sure Westerners felt that way about Africa 100 years later.

Michael Page, a prolific audiobook narrator, reads this novel. Years ago I listened to him read an installment in another Perry series, but I've not heard him since I started keeping this blog [edited to add: Wrong! I listened to this.].  He has a very actor-y voice -- rich and resonant with lots of variation. He is very good at characterization -- the more obvious choices through social class, but I particularly admired the subtle differences between his voice for Pitt and for Narraway (the latter was quick, nasal and emphatic, Pitt speaks slower and slightly deeper). His women also sound female without being femmy (many a male narrator has failed in this area).  Page does substitute volume for emotion with certain characters, I found the bombastic and loud voice he gave to Cahoon to be earshattering upon occasion. Like Katherine Kellgren, he's an American who can put on a mean British accent (I think he's originally from the U.S. ... maybe not). It might be interesting to hear him read something in his own "native" tongue.

On my first trip to London in 1977, I read in some guidebook that if you approached the guards at the gate of Buckingham Palace and asked to sign the Queen's guestbook, you were permitted to enter and walk across the red gravel to that part of the building that fronts the inner courtyard. We entered a doorway, and sure enough, there was the guestbook awaiting my signature.  I wonder if you can still do that.

[The aerial view of Buckingham Palace, showing the gardens behind, was taken by Brendan and Ruth McCartney as part of the geograph.org.uk project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Buckingham Palace Gardens (Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, Book 25) by Anne Perry
Narrated by Michael Page
Brilliance Audio, 2008.  12:35

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Found!

I like a good art story.  Something like Susan Vreeland's work, or this audiobook that I enjoyed so much (or this one, not nearly as good). It might be why I like those trashy Gabriel Allon thrillers. I enjoy the mysterious book/manuscript genre as well -- like The Thirteenth Tale, or even A.S. Byatt's Possession.  After thinking about all these books, it seems clear that what I like is the contemporary mixing with the historical.  Which makes Jonathan Harr's nonfiction work The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece kind of a no-brainer in the will-I-like-this sweepstakes.

Harr's narrative begins in 1990 when two young art history graduate students, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, are given a research project to take a look at the provenance of two attributed-to Caravaggio paintings on the same subject, St. John the Baptist, to see if they could determine which was Caravaggio's and which was the copy.  In the course of their research, they stumbled upon a largely unknown archive at the crumbling estate of a powerful 16th century family, the Matteis. Ciriaci Mattei had been a patron of Caravaggio. While exploring this archive at the back of the Italian thigh (so to speak), in a small town called Recanati, Francesca and Laura came upon mention of another Caravaggio painting, lost for 200 years: "The Taking of Christ," depicting the moment when Judas kissed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to identify him to the soldiers poised to arrest him.  Caravaggio scholars knew of the painting, but no one knew where it had gone.

Francesca and Laura keep digging and track "The Taking of Christ" -- at some point attributed to a Caravaggisti named Gerrit Von Honthorst -- to an auction house in Scotland where it vanished from written record sometime in the late 1700s. (The records were lost in a fire in the 20th century.)  Disappointed, Francesca and Laura agree to write an article for an Italian art journal.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, Ireland, a transplanted Italian conservator, Sergio Benedetti, is visiting -- with a colleague from the National Gallery of Ireland -- a Jesuit residence to look at some of their paintings.  The Jesuits were renovating their community house and thought they'd see if any of their paintings were worth restoring. One painting catches Sergio's eye. According to Harr, he believed instantly that the painting was the lost Caravaggio, but it took a little while for him to convince his superiors. Sergio transports the painting to the conservators' studio at the Gallery and begins work to prove his case.  And while a close examination of the painting can provide some of the clues to its provenance, he's got  to create a paper trail as well.  And -- in the course of his research -- Sergio finds the article that Francesca and Laura wrote.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  There's a lot more in the book that I don't want to explain here, because you should read it for yourself.  Harr does a great job with this story -- building suspense in a way that feels natural even though we know that it all ended well -- and intersperses the narrative with a bare bones, yet vivid, biography of the painter.  Caravaggio was a brawler, and when Harr described the rapidly escalating argument he had over the affections of a prostitute with members of a thuggish clan who ruled one Roman neighborhood, I felt like I'd been plopped right into Act One of Romeo & Juliet.  It's too bad Shakespeare (born 1564) didn't know about Caravaggio (born 1571). He clearly would have made a great tragic hero!

Harr's characters make the story -- young art historians, not the rock stars, plug away and get their moments of glory. It's clear Harr has a soft spot for Francesca, but he's somewhat tougher on Sergio. His supporting players are just as interesting: the elderly British art historian Sir Denis Mahon (pronounced Mahhn) or a smarmy Italian journalist named Fabio Isman.  In Harr's hands the slog of research is not a slog (the decrepit Palazzo Mattei on a dreary winter day is crystal clear), and the trade of restoration is fascinating. Even though I sought out an image of "The Taking ...," Harr's descriptions told me where to look.  (Caravaggio included himself in this painting, as he often did.  He's on the far right, holding the lantern.)

Campbell Scott reads this book (heard here before by me).  His low-key style suits nonfiction, as he steadily but patiently tells us the story of this paper chase.  There is a fair amount of dialogue in the story, and Campbell does a little bit of subtle voicing -- a hint of Italian-accented English for Francesca and Sergio, aristocratic English for Sir Denis, a bit of an Irish lilt for two other employees of the Irish National Gallery, including its director, Raymond Keaveney (which my Italian-influenced brain was spelling Cavini -- which was very funny to me at the time). None of the accents were very pronounced, and I can't say that Scott was confident in all his characters, but I enjoyed listening to him read.  He has an interesting voice -- deep and carefully enunciated -- that's entirely pleasant to listen to.

The audiobook has an added extra that I like: a brief interview with the author. Harr explains how he came upon the story and how he turned it into first an article in the New York Times Magazine, and eventually this book.  I always appreciate this inside glimpse into an author's process.

Another version of "The Taking ..." is located at a museum in Odessa, Ukraine. Since the recovery of the Irish-owned painting, Harr explains that scholars now believe that the Odessa version is a very good copy.  (It's also quite damaged.)  Now I see -- from trolling the web -- that this painting was stolen in 2008 (three years after The Lost Painting was published) and recovered two years later. Which brings to mind that recent art theft in the Netherlands, and the ongoing loss experienced by the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum. Why do people do this? Because there's always a need to have what no one else can, I guess.

[This image of "The Taking of Christ" was retrieved from the National Gallery of Ireland's website.]

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr
Narrated by Campbell Scott
Books on Tape, 2005.  6:22