Monday, March 11, 2013

Comings and goings

Emma Donoghue and I share a favorite story in her outstanding collection of short stories, Astray: the first one of the 14 tales of individuals who have headed out -- in one way or another -- in search of something new.  "Man and Boy" tells the true story of one man and his best friend, Jumbo the Elephant; as the man -- Matthew Scott -- determines that he's the only one who can escort Jumbo from his old home in the London Zoo to his new one under the tender mercies of one P.T. Barnum in 1882.  Inspired -- as are all the stories in Astray -- by a historical nugget (newspaper article, correspondence, or autobiography) -- "Man and Boy"is a long diary entry or letter that Scott writes to his charge. In a delightful reveal, we're fully wrapped up in this story of friendship before Donoghue lets slip that the friend is an elephant.

Donoghue explains the concept of Astray far better than I can: "With the turn of each page, the protagonists of these stories go astray in various senses. They are emigrants, runaways, drifters; gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross borders of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, under duress or incognito. ... lighting up four centuries of wanderings that have profound echoes in the present."  She describes her own emigration experience (from Ireland to Canada, for love) as the impetus of her research.

All 14 stories are well worth reading, but I particularly enjoyed "The Long Way Home," about a tomboy/cowgirl in late 19th century Arizona aiming to set something right; "The Gift," a heartrending story of a mother who delivered her child to an orphanage with every expectation of returning for her -- but the child's adoptive father feels otherwise; "Daddy's Girl," where a young woman discovers that her father was not the man she thought he was (literally); and "What Remains," a story of loss as one elderly woman faces the future without her longtime companion.

Interesting, isn't it, that these are all from a woman's perspective (except for Matthew Scott and Jumbo), so I must mention "The Widow's Cruse," enjoyably about a lawyer who believes that the woman he has taken on as a client is telling the truth; and "Last Supper at Brown's," where a man's slave and his wife work together to solve the pesky problem he presents.

Each story concludes with a brief explanation about what inspired it, as Donoghue cites her research and discoveries.

What I like here is Donoghue's curious mind and the flights of imagination that the historical tidbits send her on. I'm continually astonished at the drama of everyday life, and I love that these stories are grounded in the truth.

The audiobook has five readers: Dion Graham, Khristine Hvam, James Langton, Robert Petkoff, and Suzanne Toren. (The latter two read parts in the other Donoghue book I've listened to: Room.)  One fave (Graham, alas, narrates just one story: "Last Supper at Brown's"), two in the category of oh-you-are-very-good-and-I-will-listen-to-you-again (Hvam and Langton), and two that I would be fine not listening to ever again. All are simply terrific. Toren, whose narrations I have -- quite frankly -- never liked, surprised me with her breadth. In the credits, Toren and Langton are identified as directors.

Langton takes gold for me: He's simply wonderful as the self-satisfied, yet emotionally stunted, Matthew Scott; but also he shines in two stories I didn't actually like very much: "The Lost Seed," about a holier-than-thou colonist in 17th century Massachusetts; and he's devastating as a young Hessian in the British army forced to rape young American women as part of a conquering army in "The Hunt."  He's also funny/sad in telling the story of two young gold prospectors barely hanging on (to each other) in the Klondike ("Snowblind").  His characters sound like they are just confiding their story to you, the listener, with all the emotional quality that implies. He's having a delightful one-sided conversation.  The gentle irony he imparts to the ridiculous history of Jumbo the elephant epitomizes his conversational narrative style.

Each story opens with the tale's location and title and concludes with an underbed of music before the author's note.  This is so helpful to a listener, giving you those important clues that help to guide your stopping and starting.  (I think I might have been especially cognizant of these clues as Astray was one of the many [five!] books I listened to in an attempt to break up the tedium that was The Legend of Broken, which offered absolutely no guidance whatsoever, as it went on and on and on. I swear the sentences had no end. But more about this in a bit.)

There's also a final essay by the author, read by her in her slightly lilting Irish/Canadian accent. She's too choppy to narrate a full book, but she holds her own among the heavyweights. All in all, an outstanding audio production.  I'm not the only one to think so: AudioFile magazine gave it an Earphones Award, and it's up for a 2013 Audie.  I've listened to quite a few good books this year, but this is most definitely the best of those published most recently.

In the department of it-really-doesn't-matter-but-I-find-it-interesting-anyway: The credits of the audiobook read as follows:  Langton, Hvam, Petkoff, Toren, Graham.  I wonder if that's mic time. Just curious.

[Matthew Scott and Jumbo giving a ride to children at the London Zoo, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Astray by Emma Donoghue
Narrated by Dion Graham, Khristine Hvam, James Langton, Robert Petkoff, and Suzanne Toren
Hachette Audio, 2012.  6:31

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