Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aftermath

This image is titled New Year Aftermath and although nothing conse- quential happened in 2013, aftermath is my theme for this year's listening.

Because all my listening was oddly colored by that really, really, really bad audiobook I listened to at the beginning of the year. It's like a traffic accident, I can't look away. (But I linked to it in the post for Heading Out to Wonderful and I'm not going to link to it again.)

Herewith the year's stats:

52 audiobooks.
561:31, for an average of 10:48 per book.
20 books for children or teens.
4 works of nonfiction.

Fewer books than 2012, where I read 59, but more hours: It somehow became important to me that I finish with more hours than 2012, so I powered through House of Stone to get there, by 3:40.

Two books read by their authors, both good (one surprisingly and one not): Flight Behavior and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Only one author heard twice: Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion and The Lord of Opium.

A bunch of narrators were heard twice:

Raúl Esparza: See Nancy Farmer above.
William Dufris: The Good Thief and (uncredited) The Monuments Men.
Robin Miles: The Freedom Maze and Cleopatra
Robin Sachs: The Last Werewolf and Master and God
Simon Vance: Stone's Fall and The Holy Thief

Katherine Kellgren was heard three times: Monstrous Beauty, The American Heiress and the latest (for me) Bloody Jack, The Mark of the Golden Dragon.

And so to the great:

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt
Astray by Emma Donoghue (her Room was a favorite last year) 
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Touchstone by Laurie R. King
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

So, maybe the 550-hour mark (or so) is the normal (I have no idea what happened in that outlier year: 2011). It's always good to aim a little higher, so I'll work toward 600 hours, but settle for less, in 2014.

Happy New Year to you!

[The photograph above was taken in 2008 by Andrew Baron.]

[Bullets were attempted here to make it easier to read, but !@#$%^& Blogger doesn't like to space them properly if you add them after the fact.]

Bayt

The last of 2013. A book I "had" to read (for work). A book I wanted to read. A book that disappointed. A book that subsequent events made all the more poignant and overshadowed (for me at least) the author's original story.

Anthony Shadid's House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East relates the year the author and reporter took a leave of absence to rebuild and restore the house his great-grandfather built in a small Lebanese town near the Israeli border, Marjayoun. In the shadow of Mount Hermon, it was once a thriving town, but emigration and the territorial battles both within and without Lebanon have left it -- and Shadid's ancestor Isber Samara's home -- shattered. He intersperses the story of the restoration, complete with a wacky cast of contractors and other Marjayoun residents, with the touching story of his grandmother's exodus to and subsequent life in the United States. His inspiration is bayt, an Arabic word for house whose deeper meaning connotes home and/or family. Rebuilding the house affords him the chance to find what home means.

Sadly, Shadid died just before the book was published, making that concept of bayt more intensely felt by readers who know how things turned out. You can't experience this book without the knowledge that the author is not around to enjoy his achievement and that knowledge colored the listening for me.

I enjoyed the family history, and -- in fact -- want to know more about the Shadids and the Samaras. Shadid ends their story with death of his grandmother (the last to live in the house). But the house restoration is tedious and has been told before: the contractors who make the owner appear foolish for one reason or another, the culture clash between owner and colorful residents, the realization that it all means something more than a house, even the thing that's uncovered that looks like it's going to derail the whole venture (which I don't recall Shadid ever telling me how they solved it). The unfamiliar Arabic names blended together so I quickly forgot who was the tiler, the roofer, the general worker, etc.  Of the two "non-worker" men Shadid portrays, I lost (or never heard) the origins of their friendships.

Lost (or never heard). That's really the truth here. I had difficulty paying attention to this book, I think because it starts with the names and places I need to remember but somehow they never stuck. Shadid moves his narrative into the past and back again with little preparation so occasionally it took a few crucial minutes to get oriented. I lost my place at one point and skipped a whole disc without realizing it until afterwards (I went back ... and it actually made more sense knowing what was coming).

The book is narrated by Neil Shah. He has a light voice and a precise style where he reads the narrative in a mostly neutral, nonfiction-ish fashion. He has no fear of the Arabic names which sound natural as he reads. There is a fair amount of dialogue in the book, and Shah reads this with a bit of characterization which help to keep things interesting. He gives a slight accent to a few of the men, but I couldn't determine why some had this and some didn't. I also heard a few mispronunciations and one word I think is just wrong: emiscerate? (According to the internet, this word is used in a [somewhat disturbing ... and so you'll have to look it up yourself] song called Necrophile Decapitator, and the OED hasn't heard of it ... am I simply mishearing eviscerate?)

Would I have gotten more from this book from eye-reading? I generally don't do so well with nonfiction anyway, but I did take a look at a copy while listening to see if there were photographs and discovered a truncated family tree in the front matter, which might have helped with some of the names:  Shadid's grandmother's siblings were Nabeeh and Nabiha; his grandfather's Najiba and Nabeeha. Ultimately, though, it's the pervading sense of what-will-never-be that's memorable here. And that has nothing to do with the book or its audio version.

[NPR reproduced this photograph of Shadid and his son in front of the house of stone, crediting Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid
Narrated by Neil Shah
Blackstone Audio, 2012. 12:22

You're going to have to pass through all right

This next book sort of combines the themes of the previous two -- Southern eccentricity mixed with a bit of gothic horror -- and it did not sit well with me, but not because of that combination. I recognize the craft of the author, but can't look beyond the icky story to appreciate it.  Robert Goolrick's second novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, made its way into my possession as a prize in Devourer of Books Audiobook Week celebration. Suffice it to say, it was my second choice.

Charlie Beale has nothing but a suitcase full of money and another full of butcher knives in his truck when he rolls into Brownsburg, Virginia a few years after World War II.  (Yes, Mr. Chekhov, the knives are used, but the source of Charlie's money is never explained.) Brownsburg is a sleepy, Blue Ridge Mountains town where the 538 residents know everyone else rather too well but they mostly get along because they all follow the unwritten rules. Charlie finds work with the local butcher and soon is accepted by the residents. He begins to buy land and settles down in a house in town. The butcher's five-year-old son Sam worships him.

Charlie begins to take Sam on his weekly trip to a stockyard where Charlie humanely butchers each week's supplies before bringing the meat back to Brownsburg. One fateful day, Charlie makes a stop on the way home. He stops at the home of Brownsburg's wealthiest citizen, Harrison Boatwright "Boaty" Glass. Boaty is not at home, but his very young wife is. Her name is Sylvan, and she was purchased by Boaty from her hillbilly family a few years ago. A controlling man (duh!), Boaty has fulfilled at least one of Sylvan's dreams -- to remake herself in the image of the Hollywood movie stars she has seen at the movies and in magazines. Charlie instructs Sam to stay in the truck and never, ever tell anyone that they were here.

Sam never breaks that promise, but it all ends badly anyway.

Sam's situation really bothered me in this book. Charlie professed to love Sam, but he used him in the worst possible way. (OK, maybe not in the worst possible way, but my mind screamed "child abuse" all the time I was listening.) Even Sam's parents, once they figured out what was going on, didn't put a stop to the visits. Ick, ick, ick. Sam's now the omniscient narrator telling us the story 60 years later, and here is how he begins: "Was I damaged by it, they wanted to know, wounded in some way? And I always say no. I don't think I was hurt by it. But I was changed, changed deeply and forever in ways I realize more and more every day. Anyway, it's too late now to go back, to take that rock out of the river, the one that changed the course of the water's flow." Yeah, children often don't blame their abusers.

Setting this aside, there is no doubt that Goolrick can turn a phrase, that he is a master of the small detail, that his prose has the feel of an old mountain ballad of love gone wrong. The audiobook does have a mournful, evocative violin intro/outgo that exemplifies that musical metaphor.

I think that a lot of my dislike stems from the book's narrator, Norman Dietz (although the author doesn't agree). Dietz has a light, but craggy and older-sounding (seasoned is what that article calls it) voice that ably stands in for our 65-year-old narrator.  He reads with a slow pace that does capture the sense of what life is like in Brownsburg, although I can't deny I wish he had sped up a bit. It's when he takes on the other characters in five-year-old Sam's life, that it all starts to get a little creepy. His portrayal of Sylvan -- who has lost her hillbilly twang by listening to those movie stars and now speaks with that affected 1930s faux-English accent -- is just uncomfortable. She's faky high-pitched and whispery femmy. And Dietz doesn't seem to be able to reproduce that Hollywood-esque accent.

The other woman Dietz fails at is the novel's sole African American (well, there is a preacher who shows up twice): A dressmaker named Claudie who creates Sylvan's Hollywood wardrobe, including a memorably described dress worn by a tap-dancing Ann Miller in On the Town. (Here's the dress.) Claudie has all that same femmy-ness as Sylvan with an added layer of (for-want-of-a-better-word) Negro-ness that sounds like a white guy trying too hard.

When he portrays Sam, it goes beyond discomfort and into the range of child molester. This is harsh, but what I mean is that his adult voice making baby talk gives me a sensation of an adult talking down to a child in order to get something. All the more horrifying when you consider the position that Sam has been put in.

The post title is from the book: "Before you get to wonderful, you're going to have to pass through all right." (Which may be an old saying, but might also be from the musician Bill Withers, who -- of course -- may have heard it from ... an old saying.) Regardless, as I write this on New Year's Eve 2013, I think about my listening year and how I passed through a lot of all right. This audiobook doesn't rank as the nadir (here you go, if you'd like the reminder), it's in the lower range of all right.

[US copyright means that no images from Photoplay magazine in the 1940s are available. This 1949 cover featuring Claudette Colbert is from an Australian publication and was likely the kind of magazine Sylvan Glass loved to pore over. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
Narrated by Norman Dietz
Highbridge Audio, 2012. 9:30

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I knew terrible things, but I knew I musn't let adults know

So, the just-previous audiobook is narrated by an actual rock star, while this book is narrated by a literary rock star who just happens to be an outstanding audiobook narrator. Only Neil Gaiman can follow Lyle Lovett. Who would not wish to listen to Neil Gaiman read his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane?

This slim novel (only the second of his adult works that I've read, here's the first) is from the first-person perspective of an unnamed 40-ish man returning to his Sussex village for a funeral. He goes for a drive and finds himself outside the house he lived in when he was just seven years old. Then he was a solitary boy (no one came to his birthday party) who made friends with the slightly older girl, Lettie Hempstock, who lived near the pond at the end of the country lane. The events of the novel begin when his parents take in a boarder, an opal salesman, who -- after running over the family cat, subsequently asphyxiates himself in the family's Mini down at the end of the lane.

The boy is affected by this death in a rather odd way, so he turns to Lettie for advice. She understands that something has crossed over from ... somewhere, and that it needs to be sent back. She takes the boy with her, warning him to not let hold of her hand. He does, of course, giving the creature greater access to our world in the form of a terrifying nanny named Ursula Monkton. He's got to alert Lettie -- along with her mum and grandmother (who might remember the Big Bang) -- but first he's got to escape Ursula Monkton.

I really enjoyed the pure terror and tension of this book, which likely has a lot to do with how Gaiman reads it. Our hero undergoes quite a lot for a seven-year-old and his efforts to escape Ursula Monkton are thrilling. There's also a lot of humor here -- locked in by malevolent Monkton he reads all his mother's quasi-Nancy Drew books that all have to do with saving England during World War II, he sings Gilbert and Sullivan tunes while trapped in a fairy ring (the only safe spot), he must wear the only clothing the Hempstock's have for him -- a frock coat and a voluminous nightgown. The magic is a bit hard to get one's arms around, but really, does it matter much beyond Hempstocks = good, Monkton = evil? (Except for those other hungry bird-creatures who are called up by Lettie ... good? evil?)

I also liked the sense of melancholy infused in the novel. We never learn who the man is mourning, but it's clearly not his only loss; he seems mired in his life's losses. Of course, later we learn of a significant tragedy that resulted from his encounter with Ursula Monkton. When he ends up immersed in the pond near the Hempstock's farm (a pond that Lettie insists is an ocean), the melancholy tone briefly turns to peace.

Gaiman's narration is delightful; I'm always impressed at how he uses his familiarity with the story to his advantage. You never have the feeling in his narrations that he's looked at these words over and over and is bored by them, rather that he revels in the story he's about to tell you. His quiet delivery sets the elegiac tone, the matter-of-fact way that he reads disguises the plot developments to come. This approach makes the story full of surprises. He never pretends that he is a seven-year-old boy, but is always telling the mysterious events from a distance, yet at the same time the horror and fear at what the boy is experiencing are palpable.

In a Gaiman narration, it's not about the character voices or the accents, but he still does a decent job of creating consistent voices. Ursula Monkton has a flat imperiousness that is bone-chilling, Lettie's business-like approach to dispatching the invaders comes through in her delivery, and Gaiman even produces a wraith-like scratchy voice for those nasty bird-things.

Gaiman says the name of his book with a very interesting pause: The Ocean ... at the End of the Lane.  He also prefaces the acknowledgements at the end of the book with a sweet disclaimer, "you do not have to listen to it." But, of course, we do listen. Among the many people he thanks is Art Spiegelman, whose "word balloon" from a New Yorker interview with Maurice Sendak Gaiman uses as his epigraph (I also have used a portion of it ... but without Art Spiegelman's permission!): "I remember my own childhood vividly ... I knew terrible things ... but I knew I musn't let adults know I knew ... it would scare them."

[This is probably not the Hempstock's pond, but it did come up after searching for 'pond lane sussex' in Wikimedia Commons. The photo is of Combe Pond in Rake, West Sussex and was taken by Anthony Brunning as part of the Geograph Project (grid square SU8126).]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Narrated by the author
Harper Audio, 2013.  5:49

Monday, December 23, 2013

Lord God (Bird)

I've largely taken this year off in the area of children's literature, but every once in awhile, something came along and said read me! In the case of Kathi Appelt's The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, though, it was listen to me! Lyle Lovett ... no more need be said.

The True Blue Scouts are two newbys; raccoon brothers Bingo and J'miah are on their first mission keeping watch over the events in the Texas swamp occupied by the mysterious sleeping Sugar Man. They hang out in Information Headquarters, a rusted-out, abandoned 1949 DeSoto where every once in a while lightning causes the radio to blurt out a message from the Voice of Intelligence. If the Voice says something, the Scouts know they need to act on it.

Living next to the swamp, on the fragile Bayou Tourterelle, is 14-year-old Chap Brayburn who helps his mom eke out a small living making and serving sugar-cane pies. Chap's beloved grandfather, former owner of the abandoned DeSoto (he actually couldn't ever figure out where he left it after a serious rainstorm), has recently died and the boy is struggling with the loss. Paradise Pies is being threatened by a local good ol' boy, Sonny Boy Beaucoup, who wants to turn the swampland he owns into a theme park, headlined by alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch. Sonny Boy's ancestor made a deal with the Sugar Man not to disturb the swamp, but Sonny Boy doesn't think this bargain is worth the blood that ancestor signed with

There's the Farrow Gang of rampaging feral hogs, led by Clydine, headed towards the Swamp and its delicious sugarcane. Also with a sweet tooth:  a bunch of nasty rattlesnakes -- including the Swamp Man's friend Gertrude. Bingo and J'miah need to foil the snakes, find the Sugar Man and figure out a way to wake him up if they're going to save the swamp.

And don't forget about the possibly-not-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen (and photographed) by Chap's grandpa ... but alas, the Polaroid is with the car.

The threads of this delightful story are woven together by an omniscient, folksy narrator who sprinkles the story with humorous asides, country wisdom, a whole bunch of onomatopoeia, some fairly complex language, and a conservationist's message. It's just funny enough for adults while it stays right in the wheelhouse of upper-elementary-school-age kids who enjoy adventure and might learn a grown-up word or two.

But really, ya gotta listen to it. Its narrator is setting up a deliciously convoluted story with many diversions and is using some wonderful language -- both dictionary-worthy and just plain speech -- to have us hunker around the campfire, or curl up on the sofa to hear it. Print, schmint ... this book is meant to be read aloud.

And to have that reader have the Texas twang and easygoing delivery of country singer Lyle Lovett ... well, it's pretty heavenly. It shouldn't be, actually. Lovett reads in a fairly unexpressive way, pretty much every word is equally emphasized and each sentence has the same pace. But, that twang goes a long way. It's hard to describe, but the laconic delivery works. Oddly, it really works with all the onomatopoeia: It's nothing fancy (no vocal effects, he's just reading the words), yet Lovett reads it with a seriousness that makes it funny. And then there's his pronunciation of bayou: He goes with BI-oh. Well, it sounds authentic to me.

Sadly, Lovett chooses not to sing in a couple of places where a song is included in the text. But I guess you can't have everything. There is a little bit of twangy violin and accordion (?) music that opens and closes the audiobook in an effective way, but I don't know if it's from Lyle (he's not credited).

After reading Phillip Hoose's The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, I've become a bit of a fan, excited as anyone about the possible renaissance of the ivory-billed. That "sighting" of a few years ago was a thrill ... except, really, can it be hiding from us that successfully? Perhaps only with the intervention of the Sugar Man. And, goodness knows, I believe in the Sugar Man.

[The photograph of a 1948 DeSoto (in much better shape than Grandpa's 1949 car) was taken by dave_7 and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Plate 66 from John James Audubon's Birds of America was posted on Wikimedia Commons by the University of Pittsburgh. We've actually got a complete folio at my library, but I'm not supposed to talk about it!]

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt
Narrated by Lyle Lovett
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 5:47

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Iconography

My colleague Ruby has turned me on to two great historical mystery series -- both set in 1930s Europe. One is, sadly, by an author who decided to call it quits after four books -- Rebecca Pawel. (I have mixed feelings about this, on the one hand there isn't any more to read; on the other, there's my compulsive need to keep reading even when an author has completely run out of interesting ideas.) The other is also named Rebecca, Rebecca Cantrell.

So, when I was not wanting to read whatever it was I had in hand, I went to Ruby and asked for another recommendation. She suggested William Ryan's Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, police captain in the Moscow Militia (civil police force) in the years that Joseph Stalin consolidated his power. The Holy Thief is the first installment.

Korolev is called to a crime scene where the tortured and mutilated body of a young woman has been found in a deconsecrated church. He soon discovers that the woman was a American nun and she was in Russia trying to smuggle religious icons out of the country. This knowledge brings the case to the attention of the state security agency, the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). It's 1936, and Stalin's purges intensify; one of Korolev's favorite colleagues has disappeared -- most likely into The Zone -- due to an overheard joke about Chekists. Korolev must tread carefully lest he suffer the same fate, not least because he hides a Bible in the floorboards of his apartment.

The mystery here isn't the best -- there aren't any surprises about who killed the girl (and others) and why. The precious religious icon that everyone is seeking is never recovered (shades of this), and I'm not sure who the eponymous thief is. But the atmosphere (or as we say in the readers advisory biz, the setting) is terrific. A city where everyone avoids eye contact, yet inside Korolev's raucous apartment building are lively parties and treasonous talk. A violent football (soccer) match where the violence extends into the stands and onto the subway is so vivid that this listener was almost convinced she was seated among the stinking participants.  A posse of street children whose parents are most likely in The Zone (or dead) and who will do anything to avoid an orphanage become Korolev's Baker Street Irregulars. The bonechilling cold, the dripping walls and dank terror of Lubyanka prison, the characters who are not what they appear. It's fascinating, well-researched, and leaves you wanting more.

Once Ruby made her recommendation, the second thing I did (after reading about it in our catalog) was see if there was an audio version. I guess the answer is obvious, but when I discovered that Simon Vance was the reader, I decided to wait for an Interlibrary Loan. Now I know and recognize that Vance is a master of his craft, but he and I haven't really clicked yet. I'm not gaga about him (as I am with Dion Graham or Alan Cumming) and I think that's because we haven't met over the right book. I totally get what makes him great -- underlying all his narrations is an honest emotional connection with the story and its characters which is beautifully manifested in his reading. I keep searching for that book that will make me gaga.

The Holy Thief comes very close. Except for an odd pronunciation of Korolev (Vance goes with Kor-oh-LYOFF, whereas I eye-read Ko-ROE-lev), Vance is excellent. He reads the Russian names with authority and confidence, but thankfully doesn't go with the fake Russian accents. Snobbishly, I agree with his choice to give the cast of characters class and education variations of the English accent. The novel's few Americans sound appropriate. Vance's real talent is his storytelling, which he demonstrates in an easy reading pace and his low, pleasant voice. When the tension rises, Vance knows how to vary his delivery to reflect Korolev's situation and when true terror is in the offing it is clear in his voice. And there is true terror in this story.

There are several sections of the novel from the torturer/murderer's perspective (while at work) and Vance's delivery changes subtlely from the calm, business-like authority with which he reads Korolev's story to a softly sinister and confiding manner (all the more horrifying considering what the character is describing).

The brief intro/outro music is a squib of orchestral music that has a nice suspenseful build to it. It doesn't sound particularly Russian (whatever that is), but it set the stage in just 15 short seconds.

And that might constitute the one serious drawback about this book -- the violence visited upon the victims is meticulously described and Korolev himself takes more than one vicious beating. Almost too vivid for listening, actually; I might continue on by reading.

[Ryan's website is a fount of information about the period and has many, many photographs. The one above is Red Square during the 1930s. I believe the Falcon-ish icon that everyone is seeking is similar to this one, which is Our Lady of Vladimir, living in the Tretyakov State Gallery and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Holy Thief (The Investigations of Captain Korolev, Book 1) by William Ryan
Narrated by Simon Vance
Macmillan Audio,  2010. 10:08

Monday, December 2, 2013

Nothing to be thankful for

I was too old to read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence as a child, so I've come to her books as an adult. I discovered the mellifluous tones of narrator Alex Jennings listening to those five books (he doesn't read The Grey King, presumably because of all the Welsh), but oddly haven't heard him read anything else. Maybe I'm getting my Alex-Jennings jones met through his movies. Anyway, I've always admired Cooper's work, but I don't have the connection to it that many others have, including a colleague who tells me that she re-reads The Dark is Rising every year as the days grow short. I'm not sure why I requested a copy of her latest novel, Ghost Hawk, through the Audiobook Jukebox. Jim Dale, maybe?

Ghost Hawk begins as a straightforward work of historical fiction, introducing us to Little Hawk and his Pokanoket people shortly after the arrival of English settlers in what is now Massachusetts. Little Hawk is sent away from his tribe for his ritual test of manhood; surviving three winter months alone. He returns to tragedy: disease introduced by the white settlers has wiped out his village -- just his grandmother and one sister survived. This small family is absorbed into a neighboring village, but life for the Wampanoag Nation will never be the same.

When the village is harvesting oysters a few years later, Little Hawk meets a young white boy who tells him his name is John Wakeley. This meeting proves fateful several years later when Little Hawk attempts to help John and his father -- who has been struck down by a falling tree.

BIG SPOILER (but it's really not possible to give a complete idea of this book without it).

John witnesses the death of Little Hawk, shot in the chest by another settler; a man who claimed that Little Hawk was threatening John. This individual believes the Indians to be savages and becomes an enemy of John as he grows up. For some reason that I missed in the listening, Little Hawk's spirit cannot rest and he continues his first-person narration as an observer of John's life (and of history in general). He is even able to show himself to John in a particular place and Little Hawk and John grow close. John's relationship with Little Hawk enlightens him -- he learns Little Hawk's language and, as a young man, he leaves the Plymouth area to move to Roger Williams' community of New Providence, a community of true religious freedom and trade and respect for the original residents.

However, even Providence can't escape the events leading up to King Philip's War, as 50 years of white encroachment on Wampanoag lands finally boils over. Little Hawk is helpless to watch as his people lose the first of many conflicts with their conquerors. The story ends two centuries later as his spirit is finally freed.

I'm going to attempt to steer away from any contro- versy about this book, and simply say it wasn't particularly interesting. Cooper is flying her liberal flag, making it very clear that she disapproves of the ways that the native peoples were treated by her ancestors. So, Ghost Hawk feels like a long lecture -- on the humble yet honest way of the Indian, on the irony of the Pilgrims leaving their home for religious freedom yet insisting on conformity by all settlers and that their God's way insists on the eradication of the "savages," on American History itself. While I agree that it is important for young readers to learn these things, the message is so heavy-handed and takes up so much of the story that I'm not sure I would have finished had Jim Dale not been reading it to me.  I'm not sure I can see many kids sticking with it.  It's not really about kids, actually, which I find a serious drawback in a book for children.

The magical realism of the human boy and his fantastical mentor that Cooper has revisited many times in her work just doesn't have the same mystical and profound enchantment here; think of The Dark is Rising's Great Uncle Merry or even of William Shakespeare in King of Shadows. We only know that John and Little Hawk have this heartfelt friendship because Little Hawk tells us they do.

I enjoyed Jim Dale's narration, but I think he is somewhat miscast here. Dale's skills are the fantastic creatures, bringing out the humor in a story, using that little vocal quaver he has to express deep emotion. In Ghost Hawk, he has to rein all that in. He is much like the novel's Puritans in his seriousness. Here we get back to the idea of this novel as a long lecture -- Professor Dale is leading the class and we're glad he's there because he's making it the slightest bit interesting, but he doesn't have much to work with.

Dale does have opportunities here to demonstrate his skills with characterization and accents -- although I found it odd that our narrator, Little Hawk, speaks like an Englishman. I mean, I don't need Sherman Alexie's voice reading this, but it seemed peculiar that Little Hawk sounds just like the English settlers ... while some of the English settlers had regional accents.  And, there's no doubt that Dale delivers the emotions of this story (violent death makes more than one appearance). His sad, sombre voice throbs with loss.

Unlike the just-previous audiobook for youth I listened to, the backmatter (in the form of a timeline [always a bit treacherous to listen to] and an author's note) is included. Dale reads the timeline and Cooper -- in a pleasant husky voice -- reads her note. The timeline fortunately isn't just a listing of dates, but is in full, informative sentences. Its focus is the unending removal of native people from their traditional lands and is deeply depressing, and it puts a little tarnish on Abraham Lincoln that I didn't know about. Dale reads it with conviction.

The intro and outro music is nicely evocative, with a drum and a flute that -- to my white ears -- signifies a Native American story. Interestingly, the publisher got the author and narrator together for one of those brief conversations you hear so often in audiobooks, but it never made it to the audiobook. It's just five minutes long and you can listen to it here.

As is my wont, listening to this audiobook leads me to others: Should I go with the season and listen to The Dark is Rising (which I have only eye-read), or perhaps try another Alex Jennings narration? I read King of Shadows before I read The Dark ...  sequence, maybe I should listen to that one (narrated -- in what I think is better casting -- by Jim Dale).

Simon & Schuster Audio gave me this audiobook through the Solid Gold Reviewer program. I am thankful.

[My generation was raised on the myth of The First Thanksgiving, and here it is in all its misconceptions/romanticizations/straightforward error. This is a reproduction of a postcard from the Library of Congress made from a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. (This meal/celebration/meeting is mentioned only in passing in Ghost Hawk, as the events of the novel take place afterwards.)]

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
Narrated by Jim Dale
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 8:50

Thursday, November 28, 2013

When salt saved art

I've expressed before my enjoyment of a good art history (fact or fiction) story. I can't remember where I first heard about the upcoming George Clooney movie, but it intrigued me enough to seek it out in book form first. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History tells part of the story of the work of the men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of the Allied armies in Europe during World War II. Author Robert M. Edsel became interested in the work of the MFAA while working in Florence, but his research soon turned from an avocation to a profession. He discovered so much about the mostly unknown work of these men and women that he eventually had to break it up into two books. The Monuments Men (written with Bret Witter) is the first one, covering Northern Europe, while the second -- published just this year -- covers MFAA activities and adventures in Italy.

The work of the MFAA started in the United States when a bunch of art historians and museum directors got together to plan what to do with their treasures in the event of an attack by Germany on the Eastern Seaboard. One of the participants -- a lowly preservationist from Iowa amongst all those East Coast intellectuals -- George Stout, managed to get himself assigned to the MFAA once he arrived in Europe and began the laborious process of setting up teams who would travel alongside each part of the vast Allied armies as they made their way from the beaches of Normandy to Berlin. These "monuments men" would protect the ancient cathedrals and castles in the liberated towns and cities, taking the first steps to restoring them to their pre-war glory.

Once they arrived in France, though, Stout and the MFAA discovered that they had a bigger task -- locating the various stashes of looted artwork that the Nazis had picked up from museums, churches and private (mostly Jewish) citizens as they marched West. Five years later, as the Germans retreated ahead of the Allies, these works went with them and were then "secured" in caves, salt mines and even the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle.

Among the priceless works: Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, Vermeer's The Astronomer, and van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. The looting was vast (Track 5 of Disc 11 provides the astonishing numbers), and this itemizing doesn't even count the number of "degenerate" artworks that are lost forever, destroyed by the Nazis. Adolph Hitler was an art lover (he also considered himself an artist) and he intended to build a vast museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria that would hold all these European treasures. But once he realized that the Third Reich was doomed, he instituted -- over the objections of his architect, Albert Speer -- the "Nero" decree: Destroy everything that the Allies might use (or want) as they made their way into Germany.  The Monuments Men were running out of time.

I found this story fascinating -- like the novels I listened to earlier this year that described the amazing feats of courage of the women of the British SOE -- the matter-of-fact, let's-just-get-the-job-done attitude under terrifying conditions of these men (and a few women) is awe-inspiring and just makes for a great story. I'm not sure that audio is the best way for this, though. Edsel features just a few of the monuments men in action and I'm afraid -- even though he very carefully introduced them at the beginning -- that they began to blend together. I could have used a map, too, as I have only the vaguest idea of German geography (once they crossed the Rhine, I got lost). I got my Nazis mixed up as well (Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann). I'd like to get my hands on a copy of the book, but there are a lot of holds.

Part of my problem, I fear, was the narrator, Jeremy Davidson. I didn't think he was very good, but I'll try not to pile on here. Sloppy pronunciation ("unexpectantly" "ah-mmediately"), inconsistent French, German and British accents, a pretty unvarying reading pace. Some odd narrative choices: Why was a conversation between Hitler and Goebbels (?) not read with German-accented English, but other dialogue among Germans was? Letters from some of the monuments men were read by a different narrator (I think it was an uncredited William Dufris), but not all the letters from the text were (I'm going to guess that the Dufris readings were pulled out from the text [boxed], while the letters read by Davidson were not.) In one case, each narrator pronounced the name of a monuments man's wife differently. The Author's Note was delivered by another uncredited reader ... perhaps the author?

On the plus side, the opening and closing music was appropriately military-ish (in a good way).

Edsel's subsequent book: Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis has a different narrator, one I've been hoping to listen to for a while, Edoardo Ballerini. I'll probably give this a listen as well.

Now for the movie. As I was listening, I was trying to figure out what would be the movie, exactly. I mean, the race against the Nero decree was slightly tense, but didn't seem to me all that nerve-wracking; but then I saw that Clooney cast the lovely Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, a dumpy middle-aged Frenchwoman who -- as a curator at the Jeu de Paume -- saved a massive number of artworks.  Ah. Movies from books. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I'm looking forward to it.

[In the photograph, retrieved from the New York Times and credited to American Jewish Historical Society, the soldier on the right is Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger and he is looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait looted from his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany. Ironically, Ettlinger was never able to view the Rembrandt when he was a boy, as a Jew he was barred from the museum housing it.

[The photograph of the Bruges Madonna was taken by George Washingtong, that of The Astronomer is from the Web Gallery of Art. Both were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Narrated by Jeremy Davidson
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO); credited to Macmillan Audio, 2009.  14:19

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mi vida

After taking a break with Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, I delved back into the dystopic future of Matt Alacrán in Nancy Farmer's ten-years'-later sequel to The House of Scorpion, The Lord of Opium. The sequel came ten years later, The Lord of Opium begins the day after the final events of its predecessor. So, don't read any further here if you don't want the end of Scorpion spoiled.

In Matt's world, when a person with a clone dies, the clone becomes the person -- so Matt is now El Patrón, ruler of the country of Opium, part of the Drug Confederacy that stretches along what used to be the border of the United States and Mexico. At the former El Patrón's funeral, he'd left instructions that his mourners should drink a glass of the finest wine around his tomb; none knew that the wine was laced with poison and every mourner died, buried now with El Patrón -- Matt's beloved mentor Tam Lin with them. Tam Lin knew about the wine, but chose to die with the others. Matt is devastated, but soon learns why.

As El Patrón, Matt is determined to wean Opium from its source of profits -- poppies -- and free the eejits, the people with chips implanted in their brains that turns them into mindless slaves. He meets the leader of the Farm Patrol -- soldiers who captured anyone who strayed into Opium, turned them into eejits and then supervised their labors -- Cienfuegos, who becomes a valuable ally in Matt's efforts. Cienfuegos introduces Matt to parts of Opium he knew nothing about -- a biosphere, a space station, the cloning facility. Cienfuegos also alerts Matt to the forces -- good and bad -- waiting at the borders (and unable to get in because Opium is locked down) hopeful of taking over the opium trade or eradicating it altogether. It takes Matt a while to trust Cienfuegos, but soon they are working together to try and save Opium, and perhaps the world.

I found this a bit of a yawn. The bulk of the novel is Matt's exploration of his new domain and his amazement, disgust, determination began to wear. Yes, Matt is seeking his destiny and searching for a family -- which is an excellent story to tell -- but I longed for the tension that made the first book so compelling along a little more action. The final chapters are fairly exciting, but they are a long time coming.

Farmer brings in a raft of new characters: Cien- fuegos; a young child clone of a rival drug lord's lover named Listen (and she does); The Bug, another -- barely human -- clone of El Patrón; Mirasol, an eejit who may have a spark left inside her; and the Mushroom Master, an eccentric scientist brought out from the biosphere. It's these three-dimensional characters that make the leisurely pace of the novel tolerable, and certainly provide the investment in wanting Matt (and the family that he creates) to succeed.

Raúl Esparza returns as narrator and -- in this installment -- his characterizations are outstanding. These interesting people -- along with those noted above, Farmer brings back Matt's close (girl)friend María, the maternal Celia, the boys he met (and saved) at the plankton factory, even El Patrón shows up in Matt's head occasionally -- are all voiced authentically, consistently and without odd exaggerations by Esparza. The Spanish words and names are pronounced as if a Spanish speaker were saying them, and he even gets to provide a few other accents -- a couple of Africans have a few lines of dialogue, the Mushroom Man is British and even though Daft Donald (the only survivor of El Patrón's massacre) can't speak, he types in a Scottish accent.

Sadly, for some reason, Esparza chooses not to sing snatches of a spiritual (one that I've sung in my past): Children, Go Where I Send Thee. Since he sang in the first novel, I was particularly disappointed at this omission. At the same time, there is a brief but evocative (Spanish guitar chords) musical interlude that introduces the book.

The audiobook concludes with an interview between Farmer and Esparza. She's a little starstruck here, introducing him as a Tony-Award-nominated actor, but eventually they have a pleasant conversation. Esparza relates his background in audiobooks (his first was The House of the Scorpion), they chat about their favorite characters and what part he'd like to play in the (possible) movie (Tam Lin). Except for the crappy sound quality, it's engaging.

Esparza mentions an afterword to The Lord of Opium that isn't reproduced in the audiobook. This happens all too frequently and I just want to know why.

I received a copy of The Lord of Opium through the Solid Gold Reviewer program of the Audiobook Jukebox. Thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for this gift.

[The image of Patrón de San Pedro was taken by an unknown photographer and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer
Narrated by Raúl Esparza
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013.  11:31

Saturday, November 9, 2013

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

John Irving spoke at my college graduation, in a speech he later rewrote for Esquire magazine; that is reproduced here. He used The Great Gatsby as a cautionary tale that amused me at the time, but truly I've never forgotten: "He ... threw his life away on a dream and on a woman not worth even the least of his time. He was murdered in his own swimming pool because he was mistaken for someone else." (Hope that wasn't a spoiler for anyone.)  I've read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby a couple of times since then (although I truthfully can't remember when I first read it -- high school, college?) and each time when I reach the point where Jimmy Gatz' plan for self-improvement is revealed (it can be found in Chapter 9 here) I get a little frisson of that young graduate and her fears and plans for her own future.

Was it the new(est) movie that brought me back to the novel again? I don't know, actually, but I'm so glad I went there. This book is truly a masterpiece. Synopsis: Nick Carraway, still casting about for his future a few years after the end of the Great War, takes a rental cottage on Long Island's West Egg from where he commutes to a job in the "bond business" in Manhattan. His closest neighbor is the mysterious and immensely wealthy Jay Gatsby, whose all-night parties and business relationships with famous gangsters (including the fictional character who fixed the 1919 World Series) are legendary.

Nick secures an invitation to a Gatsby party for himself and his second cousin Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is married to a Yale classmate of Nick's Tom, who is a bully and having a public affair with Mildred Wilson, fat and blowsy wife of a gas station owner. Later, Nick learns that before she married, Daisy had a love affair with Gatsby. And once she reconnects with Nick's neighbor, she and Gatsby become lovers again. In less than five hours (under 200 pages), it all goes horribly wrong.

What is so terrific about this book? Is it the amazing economy of Fitzgerald's writing? His word painting -- Gatsby's parties (although I really enjoyed the sweaty impromptu party that takes place early in the novel when Nick meets Tom's mistress and her white-trash circle), the enervated women, that hot summer drive into Manhattan, the all-seeing eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg? His truthful and honest characters, each one vivid and completely human in such small strokes? The way he captured the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties (while in the midst of it)?  I like how the book has this hurtling sense of oncoming doom, but never quite knowing why or where said doom is going to come from.

The late, legendary Frank Muller reads the novel. Muller and I never crossed paths before he stopped recording as a result of a motorcycle accident in 2001 (around the time I began steadily listening), and this is the first time I've heard him read. He's as extraordinary as his many fans claim (including The New Yorker last year), with his craggy world-weary voice giving life to a depressed Nick Carraway, along with the guarded and mercurial Gatsby. The reading ebbs and flows with a naturalness that makes you feel like he's simply sitting across the room and reading to you. He paces the novel so well, taking his time over the Fitzgerald's prolix (but metaphorically spot-on) descriptions and speeding up with the inevitable forward action, which may be the reason for that sense of doom that permeates the narrative.

It turns out that Muller narrates a lot of Stephen King, which nothing and no one can get me to read ... but my library appears to have a number of classics that he has read. I've always meant to get to Moby Dick, maybe Muller is my ticket.

I think I'll watch the new movie (now that I've read the book and can be all literary about what it includes and leaves out). I don't care about the 3D (those glasses give me a headache), so I think I'll go add my name to the hold list (497 and climbing). Get a load of the catalog description: "A would-be writer Nick Carraway leaves the Midwest and comes to New York City in the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks. Chasing his own American Dream, Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby. It is thus that Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves and deceits." Well, yeah ... that's what it's about, but that's not what it's about. Good grief!

[It's not the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock but it is a light, it's green and on a dock. This can be found at Torquay; the photograph was taken by Chris Downer for the Geograph Project (I've been using that image resource a lot lately) and it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Narrated by Frank Muller
Recorded Books, 1997.  4:39

Dolly, meet Matt. Matt, Dolly. You've got a lot in common

Sometimes, it's best not to look back. I re-read my 2010 post about the last Nancy Farmer book I listened to, and noticed that I turned up my superior nose at a proposed sequel to The House of the Scorpion, her 2002 trifecta winner (National Book Award, Newbery Honor, Printz Honor). Three years later, I asked the good folks at the Audiobook Jukebox to send me a copy of said sequel as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program. (So much for consistency.) The real draw for the sequel, though, was its narrator (more below). Since I last read The House of the Scorpion over ten years ago (I hadn't listed it in my ten-years-plus reading record), I thought I should experience the story again -- this time on audio -- before starting on its sequel.

The House of the Scorpion begins at the conception of Matteo Alacrán, created in a laboratory and gestated in a cow. Matt is the clone of El Patrón, the powerful leader of Opium, a country carved out along the border of the U.S. and Mexico (now called Aztlán) that grows poppies and exports opium. El Patrón uses zombie-fied eejits to mindlessly work his poppy fields and serve him on his vast estate.  El Patrón's DNA has produced a number of clones, who are used to replace his failing organs, and he is now 146 years old. Unlike the other clones, however, Matt's brain is not destroyed at infancy, and he is raised in relative comfort by El Patrón's cook, Celia.

When Matt is about five years old, he is discovered by members of El Patrón's family and for a few months, he is kept prisoner in a room and treated as an eejit (i.e., nothing more than an animal); but when El Patrón learns of his presence, he is released and raised and educated as if he were a "real" boy. Despite this, Matt is not accepted by the others in El Patrón's household; his only friends are his beloved Celia, rebellious María Mendoza -- daughter of El Patrón's close ally, a U.S. Senator -- and Tam Lin, one of El Patrón's terrifying bodyguards. It is Tam Lin who helps to prepare Matt for the future, if he's able to escape El Patrón's ultimate plans for him -- which Matt seems unable to comprehend.

As El Patrón's mind and body fails, Celia and Tam Lin conspire to save Matt, but his escape may be more dangerous than staying in Opium.

After ten years, the story has most definitely stood the test of time. I remembered the bare outlines of the story, but not its details (particularly not the delightfully flawed Tam Lin, who seems a worthy predecessor to Paolo Bacigalupi's marvelous half-man, Tool), so a revisit was not a trial in any way.  It's a riveting story with Matt's fate in the balance up until the very end (and that fate is also, finally, in his own hands); and it plumbs some important subjects: the rights and responsibilities of individuals, what lengths should science go, how are governments complicit in drug trafficking, can a terrorist be a good man.  Not least it asks, what is a clone?

As I said above, I was drawn to the sequel, called The Lord of Opium, by its narrator, Raúl Esparza, who also narrates this book. Esparza is a household name to those of us who enjoy live theatre, establishing his career in a number of singing roles. I was thrilled when he began singing a lullaby on this recording ('cause you know I like the singing!). It will be no trial to continue on with the sequel.

He's a pretty good audiobook narrator as well, although he does tend to get a little emphatic in moments of suspense and drama. All the Spanish names and places are pronounced with authenticity. He reads dialogue very well -- there were many lovely character portrayals: Matt -- first a traumatized child and eventually a confident and heroic young man, tender Celia, passionate María, and unflappable Tam Lin who speaks with a pleasant Scots burr. El Patrón's manipulative evil is evident in Esparza's deep, gravelly delivery and scary heh-heh laugh.

Esparza makes some interesting accent decisions, one that a person not of Latino descent might be unable to get away with: he reads most of the novel's nasty adults with variations on Spanish-inflected English (Celia also speaks with this accent, but of course, she is a wholly sympathetic adult), while the young characters (even the evil ones) are portrayed with ethnically neutral American voices. He is skilled at creating a character with a single vocal characteristic while making that character sound like a human being: a young boy Matt meets after he leaves Opium, Fidelito, has a high, breaking voice and the very unpleasant Felicia, El Patrón's daughter-in-law, speaks with the listlessness of a regular laudanum user.

I understand some readers have found a flaw in Farmer's science, as an important plot point requires Matt to share not only El Patrón's DNA, but his fingerprints.  This identical trait does not happen, but I was not perturbed by it. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

[The photograph of the opium poppies was taken by SuperFantastic and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. I learned in this book that the opium is harvested by cutting striations in the bulb and letting the sap ooze out overnight. The hardened sap is scraped off and refined into heroin. But, to refute my statement in the previous paragraph, maybe I shouldn't believe this since Farmer was wrong about the fingerprints.

[Good grief! Dolly the cloned sheep has been stuffed and is on display at the National Museum of Scotland. This photograph, part of the Geograph Project, was taken by Mike Pennington and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Narrated by Raúl Esparza
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2008.  10:43