Monday, December 31, 2012

It was a sort of good year

I am trying to figure out if the vast number of hours I devoted to listening in 2011 (731:54) was a fluke or not, because my 2012 total (557:51) just barely topped my hours for 2010 (543:02). I probably spent more time in a car in 2011 and I didn't take one of those long vacations where I don't get a lot of listening in either.  There was the four-month computer absence this year, and I was involved in a performance (fourth row from the left, third person in) that sucked up (in a good way) all my exercise time for two months. My total books read (including listening) was way down this year as well:  167 books this year, 256 in 2011 and 221 in 2010. I know I lost my reading mojo this year, but I didn't think it affected my listening as well.

So, 59 books listened to (down from 87), but the hours per book was up slightly -- just under 9.5 hours/title compared to 8.4 hours in 2011. Close to a third of these books were downloadables. I evened out my adult and child/teen listening as I had wanted to: 29 audiobooks were those published for children or teens. I listened to five works of nonfiction. Just three authors showed up more than once: Louisa May Alcott (two titles, in what is now considered one book) Holly Black (with two plus the short story collection she edited), and Rebecca Stead, also with two. I spread the wealth among lots of narrators. At three times each, Julia Whelan and Katherine Kellgren were the narrators I listed to the most.

I have no trouble coming up with five great adult titles (all by women):
Honorable mention goes to Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.

There weren't five standouts for me in the kids and teen books though, so here are three (all by men):
Honorable mention to The Wake of the Lorelei Lee by L.A. Meyer.  Kellgren and Bloody Jack up to their usual high standard.

And the one item really worth mentioning: I managed to put not one, but two pictures of my cats in the blog this year!

On to 2013!  (As I write this, I cannot locate my mp3 player, which is going to put a bit of a crimp in the next few days.)

[The ball that "dropped" in Times Square on New Year's Eve 2007, taken by Clare Cridland and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Reconstruction

Four years ago, I listened to Pat Barker's Life Class, about the effect of World War I on a group of young English artists.  Two men, working class Paul Tarrant and privileged Kit Neville, vie for the affections of Elinor Brooke as both are drawn into the vortex of trench warfare.  Toby's Room expands our knowledge of this triangle, while adding a third man to the mix: Elinor's beloved brother Toby.

In 1912, Elinor is down for the weekend from London and her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art at the same time her older brother is taking a few days off from his medical studies. On a hot morning, the two take a familiar walk from their childhood home and exchange a passionate kiss. Elinor is horrified but intrigued by this encounter, and -- as we learn later on -- it didn't end with that kiss.  Then, we skip five years to 1917. From Life Class, we know that Paul and Elinor have had an affair and that Paul has returned to England, wounded, from the front. But Elinor soon learns that Toby has been declared "Missing, Believed Dead," and -- bereft -- she entreats Paul to help her find out what really happened.

She's discovered a note in her brother's belongings explaining that Kit Neville will know what happened.  Kit has returned from France grievously wounded, and enters Queen's Hospital, where patients like him -- those with severe facial wounds -- are treated. The plastic surgeons depend on pastel images of the wounds and their reconstruction drawn by Henry Tonks, surgeon and life class instructor at the Slade (and former academic nemesis of Kit and Paul), as they attempt to return these scarred soldiers to a semblance of normal appearance.  Against his better judgment, Paul visits Kit at the hospital, finding him not terribly receptive to Paul's tentative questions about what happened to Toby, but eventually we learn the story.

This is one of those novels about people who are not very nice. Elinor is an entitled bitch, Paul is a sap (where she's concerned), Kit was a bitter narcissist before his face was blown off, and Toby ... well, I pegged Toby's "problem" (and its solution) very early on. Barker has an obvious passion for the subject of art and the ever expanding ripples of World War I that she's used to greater effect than she does here.  The most interesting character is Kit, whose morphine-induced hallucinations and pain-filled time at Queen's are vivid and compelling.  But I found this novel to be two books that didn't mix very well together: The story of four not particularly pleasant people working out some not terribly interesting problems, and the story of soldiers in unbearable suffering and the efforts of a few dedicated people to ease that suffering.

The book reviewer from the Guardian newspaper tells me that Elinor is a fiction-alized version of the artist Dora Carrington (whom I only know through the Emma Thompson movie), but even though this made me slightly curious about whether and how Barker will continue to write about her, it didn't make me like her any more.

The book is narrated by Nicola Barber. I enjoyed listening to her pleasant reading voice describe a lush English meadow, a wild storm on the Suffolk coast, and the horrifying work of the stretcher bearers as they stumble through No Man's Land searching for the wounded.  She has a perfect upper class accent for the insufferable Elinor and a natural regional accent for Paul Tarrant who comes from Northern England.  She has the opportunity to toss in a few words from the Antipodes as the primary plastic surgeon is a Kiwi.  Her best work is with the character of Kit Neville.  His physical suffering is apparent in her voice, but also evident is the difficulty any person would have attempting to speak with part of his face missing. Barber speaks understandably, while projecting a completely differently pace and sound from any of the other characters.

While Life Class and Toby's Room share characters, they don't need to be read in "order"as their timelines overlap -- Life Class takes place in the gap between the 1912 and 1917 of Toby's Room, and the latter sort of wraps up Elinor and Paul's unfinished business from the former.  (It might be kind of interesting to read them in reverse order actually.)  I chose this book from the recent Solid Gold Reviewer offerings from the Audiobook Jukebox because I remembered liking Life Class so much.  Looking back, though, I think it was the narrator I liked. Barber is a good narrator and I'd like to hear her again, but she doesn't give me the same vivid aural recollection I got from Life Class' Russell Boulter.

Thanks to AudioGO for a copy of this audiobook.

[Official War artists had very clear restrictions on what they could and couldn't portray in their art. This is Henry Tonks' "An Advanced Dressing Station," painted in 1918 and in the public domain. It resides in the Imperial War Museum and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Toby's Room by Pat Barker
Narrated Nicola Barber
AudioGO, 2012.  9:08

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nevermore

I think it was Will Patton who prompted me to choose Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys for listening. (More accurately, I casually put myself on the hold list for a digital copy and promptly forgot about it ... then it arrived and -- as one must do with digital books -- physical ones must be set aside because e-holds cannot be frozen nor e-items renewed [OK, so I probably couldn't have renewed The Raven Boys] which, in a nutshell, are the reasons why I have yet to buy an e-reader.)  I've enjoyed the two Steifvater books I've read (listened to this one), but I'm not a drop-everything-to-read fan (unless I have to be). Narrator Patton seemed like a good fit, as his warm, Southern-inflected voice instantly evokes the mountainous region around sleepy Henrietta, Virginia.

Henrietta is the home of the prestigious Aglionby (pronounced AG-lon-bee) Academy for privileged young men, called Raven Boys in the town because of the school's mascot. Town and gown don't mix much in Henrietta; Blue Sargent, 16-year-old daughter of a local psychic, particularly doesn't because she knows they are "bastards." But Blue, who is not psychic herself but can amplify the paranormal activity in her presence, finds herself becoming friends with four of the Boys after they come to her mother (and the other three psychics who live with them) for a reading that will help the Boys with a mysterious quest.

The Raven Boys -- Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah -- are seeking a ley line that runs through Henrietta. Ley lines crisscross the globe connecting magical sites, and adherents believe that people and objects have been transported along them. (The Nazca lines in Peru are perhaps the most famous ancient monument held by some to be ley lines.)  The Boys believe that a 15th century Welsh king named Owen Glendower -- who fought for independence from the English until he mysteriously disappeared in 1415 -- fled along a ley line connecting Wales to Henrietta and is buried on it.  For some reason that I missed when I was listening, they want to find his body and "awaken" him. Since Blue can augment any energy along the ley line, the Boys need her to help them.

Blue falls for one of the Boys, Adam, a scholarship boy also from Henrietta. But Blue has been told by her mother not to kiss her true love because her kiss will mean his death.

The Raven Boys is the first installment in a four-book cycle and it sags under the exposition. The first half of the novel is comprised of lots and lots of atmosphere -- the bright orange power car that Gansey drives, Adam's unhappy home life, a few scryings and trips into the ether by the quartet of psychics in Blue's household, the introduction of the villain of the piece (who then disappears until the very end), and much, much more. I could not focus enough on these details to remember the ones that proved to be important as the plot kicked in. (I also read a huge spoiler as I was poking around online to try to get a handle on what hadn't sunk in.) The plot does take off at about Disc 7 (with the discovery of a body) and concludes at an exciting pace (although there are an awful lot of guns). But way too many things are left hanging: Why is it important to raise Glendower, what about Blue and her true love, what does Blue's absent father have to do with anything? And even though there are all these questions, I can live without knowing the answers.

Stiefvater's writing is lovely, particularly when she gets into the Virginia mountains and describes the whispering trees (which actually whisper ... in Latin), the meadows and the dense forest. A car that has been abandoned in the woods for seven years is vividly pictured coated with pollen. Her characters are also fully fledged creations (because of all the information that's thrown at us in the beginning) -- even though there are four Boys and four psychics, I had no problem remembering who was who.

When I (eye) read The Scorpio Races, it gets off to that boffo start ("It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.") and then never really lets up until the race and its aftermath. The Raven Boys has a first sentence that also packs a punch ("Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.") but then it seems to take forever to get back to that statement and even then it doesn't really pay off. Someone does, indeed, die in The Scorpio Races; in The Raven Boys that true love's heart remains beating.

To the audiobook. Will Patton is just excellent here. His raspy drawl embodies those boys of privilege beautifully and he makes poetry out of Stiefvater's descriptions of the haunted Virginia mountains. When the story turns exciting, his pace quickens as well. Each character has a distinctive voice that accurately reflects their personalities and these were sustained throughout the novel. The Boys are each natural sounding and authentically youthful. Blue sounds differently youthful without being femmy. Two of the psychics have an exaggerated delivery that gets a little wearing, but neither appears much and their voices are in character.

I have to say, though, that Patton's reading stopped me cold late in the book with his pronunciation of "ignominy." Ig-NOM-ih-knee. I have never heard that word pronounced that way. That aside, this may be one of those cases where the audio version improves the book.

The producer creates a nice effect when two characters speak at once (which happens just a few times in the novel), providing two voices -- each in character -- simultaneously. The first time I heard it it was a bit startling, but then I grew to like it. On the other hand, something happened in the translation to digital (or maybe this book is only available digitally and it was the translation to OverDrive): Only about a minute of Chapter 18 is heard before it cuts in mid-sentence to Chapter 19. I never did learn what the Latin teacher Barrington Whelk found in Gansey's locker.

[At the tarot reading the Boys attend with Blue's mother, Gansey turns over the Death card. This Troccas-Karte XIII - der Tod is from the 19th century and was created (?) by Johann Georg Rauch. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Narrated by Will Patton
Scholastic Audio, 2012. 11:04

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Made for each other

OK, even though I feel like I'm the last person to have read this, I'll try to keep the Gone Girl spoilers to a minimum. Gillian Flynn's "breakout" novel about a really, really bad marriage has plenty of twists and turns (and an ending that irritated a lot of people -- which surprised me [not the ending, the irritation] -- but to talk any more about it would, indeed, spoil the novel for the few remaining non-readers) but the narrative stems most truthfully from the two extremely vivid characters, so there's no trickery in the story; instead sit back for hours and hours of great storytelling.

It's July 5, 2012, the fifth wedding anniversary (wood) of Nick and Amy Dunne. This golden couple has had a rough few years, both lost their jobs in journalism in the economic meltdown and then Amy's trust fund had to be raided by her parents. Amy's parents are the authors of a best-selling children's series about "Amazing Amy" (forget at your peril that Amy is amazing), but the books aren't selling the way they used to. To top it off, Nick's father's dementia gets worse at the same time as his mother is diagnosed with cancer, so the couple decide to leave their fabulous Brooklyn townhouse to return to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. They've been living there for two years. Nick hasn't yet purchased his wife's anniversary gift, but he knows that Amy's traditional (and frustrating) cute-clue-driven present hunt awaits him when he returns home from the bar he owns (purchased with the last of Amy's money) with his sister. A phone call from his neighbor sends him home early -- to find a ransacked living room and no sign of his wife.

With a narrative that switches from the feckless Nick (who quickly becomes the police's number one suspect) to Type-A Amy (who we get to know through diary entries describing her romance and marriage to Nick), a picture of their not-so-picture-perfect marriage slowly and tantalizingly emerges: Two not-very-nice people whose epic dysfunction has ripples well beyond the confines of their McMansion on the Mississippi. If a reader wasn't having so much fun following the circuitous plot, she might want to take a long, hot shower to wash away the grubbiness that rubs off from the Dunnes.

I like being led around by a skilled author (and a couple of unreliable narrators), anticipating the next twist just for the sheer fun of wondering what it might be. Each one (and there are a few) drops with a satisfactory "aha" -- accompanied by a moment or two where you cast your mind back to what you thought you knew that has now been stood satisfyingly on its ear. Or the equally pleasurable activity of parsing where the clues to what you now know were hidden. Then there's the parts where you sympathize with Nick ... no wait, with Amy. No, wait ... Nick and Amy are like a train wreck, you cannot stop watching them until it's all over (or is it over?).

The novel also skewers our instant media culture, and the rapid leap to judgment if it makes a "good" story. Both Nick and Amy are products of that culture, of course, so there's a certain rightness to them becoming victims of it. Gone Girl is also the portrait of a marriage (a pretty sour one) and all the compromises and white (and non-white) lies that can take place inside of one.

Nick and Amy are almost perfectly cast with Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan. Heyborne's light voice is just right for Nick, whose self-pity is palpable as he tries to explain his way out of one incriminating action after another. As Nick finds himself deeper and deeper in trouble, the sense of panic in Heyborne's delivery works beautifully. Thanks to my new blogger labels (which you can click on to see what I've heard), I can see that I've listened to him read seven different books (all for kids or teens), but I have never liked him as much as I did listening to him embody the hapless, yet conniving Nick Dunne.

Whelan is also excellent. I've heard her read three times, all books for teens, so Amazing Amy (who, in many ways, has not yet left childhood) seems a natural step for her youthful delivery. Amy is a serious control freak and know-it-all, and her tight grasp of the events of the narrative is evident in her clipped, business-like -- laced with a bitter edge -- delivery.  She has a riff on what makes a "cool" girl that is just terrific. When things start to go a little wrong for Amy (I will risk a teeny spoiler and say that I just loved the scenes where we first meet Amy), there's a little more edge in her voice. But, really, Amy never panics.

Each does a good job voicing each other, along with a varied cast of characters that include Nick's demented father, his supportive sister, Amy's needy parents, an old admirer of Amy's, a rapacious television investigative show hostess, a big-time lawyer who defends guilty husbands, some poor white trash, and a couple of honest cops. There isn't a moment in the audiobook that drags, even though it clocks in at nearly 20 hours.

The audiobook tells me that the author's name is hard-g Gillian (while the Gill of a couple of books ago is a soft-g ... must be a Scots thing). Things like this are always interesting to me. Flynn is experiencing that surge of interest "it" authors experience: tons of holds on books that have been out for a couple of years. There are nearly 800 holds on Gone Girl at my library ... and another 130 on the audiobook! I guess I got to it before about 1,000 people here in Portland. I'm not the last to read it after all.  It was entertaining to read all the spoilers out there on the world wide web ... after the fact, of course. I'm not the type of reader who peeks at the end.

[Nick shares a sentimental story with more than one character about the job he once held portraying Tom Sawyer, whitewashing that fence at the birthplace of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri. This photo of the birthplace was taken by Andrew Balet and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan
Random House Audio, 2012.  19:12

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Come at once. We have struck a berg.

This may be a first for this blog: I am a friendly acquaintance of author Deborah Hopkinson, whose Titanic: Voices from the Disaster went into my ears when I learned it was on the shortlist for YALSA's 2013 Award for Excellent in Nonfiction. A colleague on this award committee expressed concern that I would be missing the visuals by listening, but I forged ahead anyway.

Who doesn't know what happened in the middle of the North Atlantic late in the evening of April 14, 1912?  There is no doubt that it makes a great story, remaining vividly in view for more than 100 years. Hopkinson knows we know, so she tells the story almost exclusively through the recollections of survivors -- a teenager who scorned getting on a lifeboat with the women and children, a stewardess who survived another sinking four years later, a science teacher on holiday, a young Norwegian immigrant returning to the US, the courageous telegraph operator who stood at his post until almost the end, and the highest ranking officer who survived by hanging on precariously to an upside-down lifeboat. She augments their voices with the ship's facts and figures and the chronological telling of the brief hours between striking the iceberg and the sinking of the great ship.  It's engaging and interesting, and filled with horror and tension. Even though you know a particular individual must have lived (because they are talking to you), their survival is no less miraculous. The night spent by the 14 men clinging to the upside-down lifeboat, Collapsible B, was enthralling.

But, ultimately, my colleague was right. I did miss the visuals. To really enjoy this book, I needed to have it in front of me. I wanted to leaf back to remind myself who someone was, what I had learned about them earlier. I wanted to see what they looked like, and what their friends and loved ones who hadn't survived looked like. I wanted a map of the ship so I could see the odds against some of the survivors. I wanted to see how big Collapsible B was and how 14 men could have spent the long, frigid night atop it. Alas, what was mostly in my mind's eye as I listened was this (which I saw only once, but which I now have a slight craving to see again).

It was also not a great listening experience because I couldn't follow the audiobook's techniques for illustrating the book's varying narratives. Chapter headings included quotations from survivors, which were read by various uncredited narrators. But it also seemed that these spoken quotations occurred in the middle of chapters as well.  A second narrator, Peter Altschuler, pipes in occasionally to read what I think are text boxes. But either I couldn't distinguish between Altschuler's voice and that of the main narrator, Mark Bramhall, or there just weren't that many text boxes. (It could, of course, also be that I just wasn't paying enough attention [distracted by Rose and Jack].)

Altschuler reads with a older man's raspy voice, while Bramhall sounds a little younger. But they both take a documentarian approach to their reading -- calm, steady, authoritative. Emotion creeps into their narrations when reading the survivors' stories, but neither approached these quotations with an eye to voice acting. This added to my confusion as well -- the chapter heading quotations are read with characterization, characterization that I initially expected to hear in the main narrative as well. And at least at the very beginning, I thought I'd be getting a full-cast version. On the whole, the audiobook had a certain schizophrenic feel.

Hopkinson's book concludes with about 70 pages of backmatter, 50 of which are not included in the audiobook. If you like poring over this kind of stuff, it's another argument for the eyes.

I admire Hopkinson for acknowledging -- tacitly -- the scads of fictional information about this event in her text. She briefly mentions the ship's more famous passengers: Molly Brown, John Jacob Astor, and the Strauses who chose to die together. She describes the magnificent grand staircase and the first class gathering rooms. She explains that no locked gate barred the third class passengers from reaching the deck. Perhaps the band played "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and perhaps they didn't. Oddly, the most vivid memory I have of the movie (aside from Jack's death) is the way the massive ship went straight up and then straight down. Hopkinson explains how and why it happened this way.

Does the world need another Titanic book? Probably not, but this is the first nonfiction account I've read. So, I'm as guilty as the next person in believing James Cameron's version of events. Let's celebrate this vivid account, but understand that reading it is probably better.

[Stephan Rehorek took this photo of the "eisberg" likely encountered by the Titanic. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons (where death years of both 1935 and 1975 are cited).] 

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson
Narrated by Mark Bramhall, Peter Altschuler and others
Listening Library, 2012. 4:55

Blowback

This summer, when I reported on Holly Black's Red Glove I said that "I don't want to wait" for the audio version of her third book in The Curse Workers to show up in the catalog, and so I would promptly eye-read it.  So much for that vow.  (I lost my reading mojo this year -- poor concentration abetted by a lotta bad books I had to read and the availability of too many DVDs -- so my New Year's resolution is to get it back.)  Dear reader, five months later, I found Black Heart on the audiobook shelves and tossed it in the ears.  I am, of course, glad I did.

(A digression: I don't like the "new" covers of these books.  Each features Lila Zacharov, beloved of series hero Cassel Sharpe. Unlike the estimable Kimberly and Kelly of Stacked -- who critically and entertainingly examine the covers of books written for young adults -- I think of a book cover [unless it is egregiously bad or outstandingly good] as the thing you flip to the left so you can get to the good part. But having spent the year I lost my reading mojo reading almost nothing but first-time authors for young adults and finding them overwhelmingly intended to appeal to young women, it seems to me that any book that might be of even the smallest interest to young men will have difficulty attracting these readers if a female graces the cover. Particularly if said female is surrounded by swoopy lines of hair. On the other hand, the "original" covers of Red Glove and White Cat aren't exactly screaming "manly." So, really, what do I know?)

Spoilers here if you haven't read Books 1 and 2. Black Heart picks up the tale of the star-crossed Cassel and Lila after Cassel has been recruited by the Feds to go undercover in the curse-work-fueled mob led by Lila's father. Lila herself now wears the necklace-like scars that mark her as a full-fledged member of the Zacharov gang. Curse workers can change you -- make you fall in love, make you forget, make you something else entirely -- with a touch of their bare hands. Cassel is a one-of-a-kind curse worker: He can transform with his touch, turning his girlfriend into a cat or an enemy into a table. Both the Feds and the mob think that Cassel's curse can be turned to their advantage.  Blowback, the debilitating physical reaction to working someone, can come in more than one form.

All Cassel tries to do is the right thing. He loves Lila but believes that she only loves him back because she was worked by his mother to do so. His best friends are fighting but when Cassel intervenes he only seems to make things worse. His older brother claims to be a federal agent, but he's a notorious liar. The Feds are sending mixed signals. And his mother -- after publicly working the Governor of New Jersey -- has vanished. To top it off, the Governor wants to bring back internment camps for workers, for their own safety, of course. Listen as he tries to balance all of this and graduate from high school.

Like Black's other two titles, Black Heart is a delightful long con, with Cassel's nebbishy exterior and angsty musings offering just the right distraction. The plot is pretty convoluted and I'm still not sure I believe that Cassel's con would have worked, but it certainly entertains and concludes the story of Cassel and Lila in an entirely satisfactory (if a wee bit shocking) way.

While engaging, what makes these books rise above is the narration by Jesse Eisenberg. He's really quite perfect as socially awkward, eager-to-please Cassel, with his high, worried voice and occasionally halting and nervous delivery. But he also gives you a picture of the confident con man who lies underneath, taking cool command of the narration as he takes command of the narrative. When things look particularly bleak for Cassel, panic and uncertainty are audible. And when Cassel and Lila finally kiss and head discreetly and tenderly to bed, Eisenberg's longing and love for her is perfectly clear in his delivery. It's a lovely performance. I'd very much like to hear him read something else.

And speaking of listening to a narrator again, I went back through all 632 posts this week and added the narrator(s) as a label, so I can more easily see when I've listened to someone before. This exercise was occasionally amusing since I never actually mentioned a narrator by name in a couple of instances. (The Audiobook Jukebox helped out.) I was actually surprised at how many narrators have only one entry in my labels; I thought I'd see more instances of readers I'd listened to over and over again.  Many of the narrators who show up regularly are because I'm listening to them read a series (Katherine Kellgren/Bloody Jack and Christopher Evan Welch/The Last Apprentice most notably).  Kellgren shows up eight other times, but it's my main narrator man, Dion Graham, who leads the pack with 11 non-series books! 

I'd also like to give a shoutout to Kirby Heyborne with seven (soon to be eight) titles. Heyborne never comes to mind as a narrator I seek out to listen to, but -- despite his tics -- he's reliably good.  He does excellent work in a book I hope to get around to posting on this weekend. Nick Dunne is to Kirby Heyborne what Cassel Sharpe is to Jesse Eisenberg -- a character no one else can voice quite so effectively.   I am one of those people who doesn't watch commercial television except when trapped in a hotel room, so I got a little frisson of audiobookishness at seeing Heyborne what felt like every five minutes over Thanksgiving weekend as he cheerfully shilled for Target.

[Alas, this New Jersey Governor who has to wear his name on his clothes was not worked by Cassel's mom, although Bruce Springsteen substituted nicely. Walter Burns took this photo of Chris Christie and I retrieved it from Wikimedia Commons.]

Black Heart (The Curse Workers, Book 3) by Holly Black
Narrated by Jesse Eisenberg
Listening Library, 2012. 6:34

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where no one has gone before

Continuing in the nonfiction mode, we have Mary Roach's Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.  I'm new to Mary Roach, and -- after listening to Henrietta Lacks -- her authorial invasiveness felt intrusive.  Still, her breezy and informative take on various scientific studies was interesting, and certainly convinced me (not that I needed convincing, despite my long-time [yet inexplicable] fondness for Star Trek) that I am not astronaut material.

Roach addresses -- chapter by chapter -- the situations of human survival (eating, eliminating, intercourse/procreating, need for bathing, our tolerance for close quarters -- with or without our fellow humans, etc.) and how scientists (from NASA and other places) have prepared for these situations in space, either in actuality (Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle/space station eras) or on a future years-long voyage to our nearest neighbor, Mars. The questions Roach asks are those that NASA by and large prefers not to answer, although they appeared to be quite cooperative with her. I learned a lot:
  • We lose our ability to smell ourselves after about eight days (but that we can get very, very stinky).
  • Clothing will eventually just rot off.
  • Food crumbs and dandruff aren't ignorable (i.e., hanging out quietly on the floor) in zero-gravity.
  • The pornography industry has spent some time and talent trying to recreate weightless sex.
  • A major problem in zero-G defecation is the moment the poop actually separates from your body (gravity is essential!).
The author went on one of those zero-G parabolic plane rides, she met with heavily indebted folks who were paid to lie in a bed for two weeks, she watched the pornography, she listened to the elimination engineers talk about that separation problem. She's mostly amused at what she finds, and I think that's what I ultimately found offputting about her style. Yes, she's informative and engaging, but she inserts herself in such a knowingly arch way (much differently than Rebecca Skloot does) that the book becomes all about her, rather than about her very interesting subject. Perhaps it wouldn't have bothered me as much had I not just come off of Henrietta Lacks. Give me a few years and I might try another one of her books (each of which sounds equally fascinating).

The narrator, Sandra Burr, goes with Roach's self-aware, aren't-I-amusing approach, reading with an edge of irony (particularly in Roach's copious footnotes) that tells you that she is in on the joke.  Burr is a pretty straightforward reader -- which I have found a little dull in fiction -- using a no-frills style that is appropriate for nonfiction. Her reading here is a unsurprising, yet professional, job.

From the department of too-much-information (and an explanation of my personal habits that goes on and on and on ... so feel free to ignore). The main reason I don't like listening to downloadables is that they don't work well for falling asleep. My clock radio has a place where I can connect my mp3 player, but the volume needs to be so high that when the radio goes off in the morning it is heart-attack-inducing. Then there's the problem of middle-aged wakefulness -- I fall asleep listening, but then wake up in a whole 'nother part of the book. Tracking back to where I was is impossible, particularly so when you are trying to not fully wake up.

So, when I have a downloadable going (and I have a downloadable going because I want to listen to the book and it's usually only available to me in that format), I like to have another book in the ears for nights. I've been using Brilliance audiobooks because of their 99-track format. These don't transfer well from the copy I've made on my laptop onto my mp3 player (all the Track 1s fall together, then the Track 2s, etc.). I tried valiantly to make this work on a recent trip out of town, finally putting each disc into a different "type" of audio (one was in Albums, one in Audiobooks, one in Podcasts). Ridiculous. Those 99 tracks make it easier to go back and listen to the parts I've slept through as well ... I don't have to listen three times to the beginning of a six- or seven-minute track, always falling asleep before it finishes.  This has worked out pretty well to date: a downloadable for daytimes, and a Brilliance on CD for nights. But now -- after I've been complaining about them for a decade (I'm embarrassed to note the six times I blogged about it) -- Brilliance has changed format -- the 99 tracks are no more!!  In the future, there will be more and more downloadables, fewer and fewer books on CD. Solution? Ambien?

[The image of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Narrated by Sandra Burr
Brilliance Audio, 2010.  10:35

Monday, December 17, 2012

What does it mean to live forever?

Eleven bloggers before me have linked their reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the Audiobook Jukebox. That's one more (including me) than have listened to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which seemed to be the audiobook du jour for the longest time. I have come late to Henrietta's party, but not without appreciation. This story is unlike anything I've ever read before and it is one pretty great audiobook. I will go on and on about it.

Rebecca Skloot is a young science writer who stumbled across the bare bones story of Henrietta Lacks when she was in high school. Over time, she researched it, but it was a chance encounter with an acquaintance of the Lacks family that enabled her to write this book. When Skloot was introduced to Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, she saw the story she was meant to tell.

And that is partly the story of Henrietta -- a young mother of five who died of cervical cancer in 1951 when she was 31 years old. Her death was agonizing by all accounts, as it included radiation treatment that charred her abdomen. But during her time in the colored ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, researchers scraped some of the cancer cells off her cervix and handed them to some lab workers. Unlike any other cells this lab had worked with, these cells (now called HeLa) survived, they went on dividing. And those lab researchers gave away the cells to other lab researchers, who have used HeLa over the past 60 years to make all sorts of important medical advances. Many research organizations that have HeLa cells now sell them to other researchers (although Johns Hopkins claims that its researchers never did).  There is doubt whether Henrietta gave consent (much less informed consent) to have her cells used in research, but her family only found out about the miracle of HeLa more than 20 years later.

And the impact on the family was dev-astating. Mostly poor and raised in a household that didn't talk much about Henrietta and how she died, the news that her cells had lived beyond her created several issues in the minds of her family.  The uninformed medical experimentation imposed on African Americans (most notably the Tuskegee study of the effects of syphilis on black men), the gap in care provided to black patients during the 1950s and in the 21st century (most of Henrietta's children developed health problems, but can't afford health insurance), and the simple fact that when the family was informed about HeLa, they were being asked to submit to medical experimentation themselves -- without the scientists ever bothering to answer their most basic questions. Without these answers, unreasonable fears arose -- particularly for Henrietta's daughter Deborah: Was it the radiation -- and not the cancer -- that killed her mother, was her mother at rest, was she in pain in the afterlife from all the testing of her cells, are her clones walking about?

Skloot befriends Deborah and part of this story is how she slowly gained Deborah's trust, and tried to address Deborah's fears by sharing what she learned. Even though Deborah did not live to see the publication of Skloot's book (she died in 2009), Skloot created a foundation in her (and Henrietta's) memory to help future generations of Lackses. She also asks important questions of all of us: What does it mean when we sign those informed consent forms? Who owns our tissue once it is removed from our bodies? Who -- if anyone -- should be able to profit?

I was deeply impressed by Skloot's doggedness. She just kept asking questions, looking for people, sometimes beyond sense. Her relationship with Deborah was fraught and occasionally she seemed to push the volatile Deborah inadvisedly. Most of her research took place in the 1990s when Skloot was still in her 20s and she seemed occasionally to forge ahead without regard for the consequences. A trip she took with Deborah to visit the mental institution Henrietta's oldest daughter was committed to as a child was horrifying, and it just got worse once they arrived at the small town where Henrietta grew up.  An exorcism was required.

Skloot is a palpable presence in this book; the story of her research is a critical part of her story. And Cassandra Campbell, the narrator, beautifully portrays her. She begins to read with the air of a dispassionate and young nonfiction writer, but as she gets more and more entangled with the Lacks family, Skloot's own emotions are vivid in Campbell's voice. She also does an outstanding job of reading with appropriate African American inflections, Deborah and other members of her family sound black without caricature. That exorcism scene (and that's what it was) involved Deborah's cousin calming her down by asking Henrietta to stop haunting her and Campbell's narration is chilling and powerful. It was impossible to stop listening.

The book includes a few short examples of Deborah's own writing and these are read by the reliable Bahni Turpin, who manages to portray all of Deborah's fear and weariness in just a few words. Skloot herself is interviewed as well, providing additional insights into her research and writing process. Among other things, she tells us that she originally began the book with the exorcism, but wisely moved it to a point where readers feel connected with Deborah and her struggles.

I haven't listened to much nonfiction this year (just these two, as a matter of fact), and I usually go in the opposite direction from anything science-based, but this book was followed by another science-y one. I'm not the first person to note that good nonfiction writers recognize the importance of story.  Henrietta Lacks had a remarkable story.

[The photo of Deborah with her brother's granddaughters came from Rebecca Skloot's website, where there are lots of other great pictures. This beautiful image of HeLa cells is from the February 4, 2010 issue of Nature and was retrieved through EBSCOhost.]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell, with Bahni Turpin
Books on Tape, 2010.  12:31

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rear window

I've fallen quite far behind in blogging, but even though it's been weeks since I finished Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy it's still pretty fresh. The author is just so skilled at setting -- in addition to the thoughtful puzzles she creates for her characters and her readers -- that Georges' Brooklyn apartment building and the mysteries that occurred there still occupy a corner of my brain (although maybe that's just guilt because it's been three weeks since I finished it).  Stead's work is memorable enough that -- unlike some authors -- I'm not having any difficulty keeping it separate from First Light, her first novel and one I just finished listening to a few weeks before.

Georges (the s is silent) has had a rough couple of months.  Aside from the fact that his parents named him after the pointillist Georges Seurat (a copy of his most famous painting hangs in Georges' family's living room) -- which causes relentless teasing from his seventh grade classmates ("Hey there Gorgeous!"), he and his parents have had to move out of their home because his architect-father was laid off, his mother is working long shifts at her nursing job to make ends meet, and his best friend has inexplicably joined the A-list crowd. But things start to look up when he sees a sign in the laundry room announcing the meeting of Spy Club in his new apartment building.

At the meeting, the only other members are a brother and sister, Safer and Candy, who live on the top floor.  Safer is a year or so older than Georges, and he is deeply suspicious of the guy who lives on the floor below, Mr. X, who frequently leaves in the middle of the night carrying large suitcases.  Safer, who is homeschooled, convinces Georges to join him in exposing Mr. X and the two of them embark on their mission to uncover the truth. At the same time, Georges is welcomed into the boisterous household of Safer and his family, something he finds he needs as his parents are away, occasionally past his bedtime.

Unlike Stead's other books, this one has no supernatural elements, but her recurring theme of friendship and how it evolves is honestly evoked here. Georges has some growing up to do and he knows it, but he's also resentful of having to do so, which makes him endearing and utterly real. It's not difficult to imagine this kid. I like how occasional fun facts are delivered without cluttering up the story -- wild parrots in Brooklyn, a bodega owner who demonstrates math when he makes change, the "gay test" (something about a shorter finger)!  Stead's puzzle is mildly entertaining, unlike When You Reach Me (where it's fantastic!), but I thought the aha! moment was a little bit of a downer (kind of like Georges).  I did like the flutters of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window that listening to the book gave me.

Liar & Spy is read by Jesse Bernstein, a familiar reader from my years of listening to kids books.  He's not a narrator I seek out as a rule, but he does professional work, always.  There's a little New York in his youthful delivery that works nicely for young Georges.  Safer -- a character with somewhat hidden depths -- is voiced quietly and more maturely, while the annoying little sister Candy is read annoyingly in an appealing way. The short book moves along at a steady pace.

One thing makes this a little awkward in audio. There is a very interesting character, a classmate of Georges whom he calls Bob English Who Draws.  BEWD uses imaginative (or just plain mal-educated) spelling in the notes that he passes to Georges in class, and these are painstakingly spelled by Bernstein as he reads the novel. Fortunately, there aren't too many of these.

Stead's books straddle a fine line -- they are so evocative of New York, yet the New York they show isn't an inaccessible one to kids who've never been there. As a former Brooklyn-ite, I was mildly curious about where exactly Georges' neighborhood was.  But, really, it could be any neighborhood, anywhere. Her characters and situations are ones that nearly every kid would recognize.

[Georges' favorite part of Seurat's (whom he calls Sir-Ott) painting is the monkey on a leash in the foreground. Since to reproduce Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884 would render it insignificant, I found instead a study Sept singes, from the Musée du Louvre print collection.]

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Narrated by Jesse Bernstein
Listening Library, 2012.  4:41