Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Post-ripper

I am so close! I've been deliberately listening to long books lately so I can finally get caught up with my posting. Even though there was a vacation in there as an excuse, I've been tearing through these 12- to 15-hour jobs in about a week each giving me no opportunity to keep up!  But here is the last of the (current) backlog: The Yard by Alex Grecian.  I should treasure this moment: Goodness knows, I'll fall behind again sooner rather than later.

The Yard is the first book in a series about the origins of the Murder Squad at Scotland Yard, formed after the failure of the Metropolitan Police to find and arrest Saucy Jack, aka Jack the Ripper in 1888. By creating the Murder Squad to focus solely on homicides, Sir Edward Bradford hopes to regain the confidence the London public once had in their police force. There are only 12 men on the Squad (one of these has moved on without telling his superiors), and at the beginning of the novel they are quickly down to ten as another of their number is found dead in a steamer trunk in the middle of a busy railroad station with his mouth and eyes sewn shut.

Sir Edward assigns the new man, Walter Day, to investigate. The Murder Squad is fortunate to have as its coroner (probably not the name given to this person at this point in time), Dr. Bernard Kingsley. Modeled on the work of pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, Kingsley examines not only the body but the scene of the crime for clues, and he seems to believe that the fingerprints left at the scene may offer additional information. Day and Kingsley begin their investigation, assisted by Constable Nevil Hammersmith, but all too soon there is another police victim.

Grecian tells us who the murderer is almost immediately, and the why comes shortly after that. Then, since the cops seem to be headed down the completely wrong path, it's hours of really quite agonizing suspense before Day gets his man.  The atmosphere is creepy -- fog-bound streets, children in peril, and a second murder that puts the listener in the shoes of the victim as his eyelids are being sewn closed (I did say creepy). And overshadowing everything is the fact that Saucy Jack has not been found. But there are also a lot of awkward scenes and dialogue, a not-very-interesting digression into Day's home life, and the anachronistic use of the term "closure." I'd call it a mixed bag, but I'll probably read the next one.

A new-to-me narrator, Toby Leonard Moore, reads the book. He does a good job with the characters, producing lots of diverse accents (upper class British, Welsh, Cornish, Cockney, etc.) that are consistent and authentic. His characterizations are sympathetic, I was pleased to know these people. I enjoyed this part of his narration a lot. But, oh my, he's an "inhaler." Every single sentence begins with an audible gasp. Add to the mix incredibly lengthy pauses (some are as long as ten seconds) between paragraphs and the book begins to drag terribly.

I get quite a lot of suggestions for good mystery novels from Marilyn Stasio (see here).  But I'm often amused by myself when it's the second book in the series that catches my eye rather than the first. 'Cause then, of course, I've got to go back and start at the beginning.

[John Tenniel's illustration in the September 22, 1888 issue of Punch magazine demonstrates the loss of public confidence that led to the creation of the Murder Squad.  This image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Yard (Scotland Yard's Murder Squad, Book 1) by Alex Grecian
Narrated by Toby Leonard Moore
Recorded Books, 2012.  14:42

Take me out

Minor league baseball was thrown out of Portland three years ago to make room for Major League Soccer.  I don't know anything about soccer (beyond the fact that the ball is supposed to get kicked into the goal), so I miss baseball.  This summer, though, a really, really minor (Single A) team has taken up residence in a nearby suburb. They have a nice Oregon name too, the Hops. I'll try to make a game this summer.

All this means I had high hopes for The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Harbach is a co-founder of a literary (print!) magazine, n+1. There's nothing like a literary ode to the sport of baseball. The green field, the untimed pace, the warm weather, the beer and the hotdogs. Like many a baseball novel, Harbach's book has a certain amount of this, but it shouldn't come as a surprise that the sport is really a metaphor. "The Art of Fielding" is a book of sports aphorisms written by retired shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (who sounds like he's modeled on the great Ozzie Smith), but the art of fielding is also the art of living, of growing up, of finding your place in the world. And that's mostly what this book is about.

Baseball catcher Mike Schwartz, a junior at Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, spots shortstop Henry Skrimshander playing in one of his last games of high school. Henry is an outstanding defensive player, but he's physically small and lacks hitting power. He knows he won't be playing his beloved game for much longer. But Mike sees his potential and recruits him to enroll at Westish. Henry is golden for two years, intense training with Mike makes him a better hitter, and as Henry begins his junior year, pro scouts are starting to play attention. But then Henry makes an errant throw, striking his roommate, the self-described "gay mulatto" Owen Dunne, in the face. Henry loses his nerve and soon he can't even get the ball out of glove to throw.

Owen Dunne plays an important role in this novel's other main (and majorly icky) plot strand: He becomes the secret lover of Westish's 60-year-old president, Guert Affenlight. And when Affenlight's estranged daughter, Pella, appears on campus again, the romantic complications get more ... well, complex.

This fell really flat for me. It felt more like a college novel than a baseball one. The writing, while occasionally taking off into ecstatic flight as it described Lake Michigan in winter or a beautiful day at the ballpark, mostly came off as graduate-writing-program pretentious.  The omniscient narrator talked down to me (Melville comes up a lot), and at other times it seemed to be enjoying its own inside jokes. I try to give it respect as a work of literature and then the term "freshpersons" is used. And what about all those ridiculous names (what kind of name is Guert?). It's difficult to care for any of the characters here -- they are all extremely self-absorbed and not interesting with it.  At the end, even Henry's choices grow tiresome.

Holter Graham reads the novel. I think he set the tone of the novel for me as he captured the omniscient narrator's ironic tone in his reading. I felt patronized by both the novel and the narration, but I believe that Graham and I were reading the same book, in that his narration was the way I was interpreting the novel. I remained interested in the story, though, with some lively character interpretations and a compelling pace. Graham is skillful in eliciting true emotion in the few places in the novel that call for it, most notably with Henry's initial suffering, which Graham's sensitive reading leaves you helpless and as hopeless as he is.

In searching for something pithy to say in conclusion, I ask the following:  Does my frustration with the book arise from the fact that I couldn't tell what this author was trying to deliver: Was it a baseball story (a pretty cliched one), a comedy of small college errors (not very funny), a dissertation on the many ways we can love (and destroy) one another (no revelations here), or an MFA thesis? Does not being able to figure this out from a book impact our appreciation? Does our enjoyment stem from feeling like we are on the same page as the author?

[Ozzie Smith fields a ground ball at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002, the year he was inducted (six years after he retired). The photograph was taken by Monowi and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Narrated by Holter Graham
AudioGO, 2011.  16:00

Monday, June 24, 2013

Those daring young girls ...

I seem to be on a bit of a World War II kick in my reading lately.  I think it stems from Code Name Verity.  Among others, I've been reading some of Connie Willis' time travel books, a mystery called A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell, and watched The Bletchley Circle on DVD.  In amongst these, I listed to Trapeze by Simon Mawer.  To describe it most simplistically, it's Verity for adults.

Like Verity, teenaged Marian Sutro has been doing her part for the war effort in the Women's Auxiliary  Air Force (WAAF), but her French language skills (honed by her Swiss upbringing) catch the eye of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).  I learned in this book that SOE personnel weren't technically spies, their work of raids and bombings were solely intended to disrupt and demoralize the occupying Nazis. They might occasionally conduct a "spy" mission and that is what Marian is asked to do once she arrives in France: Contact a French physicist and convince him to escape to England.  Clement Pelletier is actually an old friend of Marian's family so SOE believes she has a chance at success. What they don't know is that Marian has been in love with Clement since she was a young teen.

I found this book almost unbearably suspenseful. Marian is not a nice person most of the time -- she rebels against her trainers, she doesn't work well with her fellow recruits, she's rude and unpleasant with her family, she seduces the young Frenchman who joins her on her mission, code name Trapeze. All this made me fearful for her: She's not alert enough, she thinks she's smarter than the Nazis chasing her, she's losing the respect of the allies who could save her life. And as wartime Paris grows more dangerous, well I was listening with my heart in my throat. The ending is a shocker. I had to listen twice because I'd ceased hearing as I attempted to process what had happened.

Thirty-nine women joined the French section of SOE during World War II, according to Mawer, and thirteen died during the war (all but one executed by the Nazis). Listening to this, and now reading Connie Willis' two-book homage to the era of Blackout/All Clear -- which describes the jaw-dropping courage of ordinary Londoners enduring The Blitz from the safety (or not) of an underground station -- one can't help but wonder how one might measure up.  Not well, I suspect for myself.  I mean, I get cranky without a shower and a decent night's sleep.

Kate Reading reads Trapeze. (She pronounces her name with a short e and Mawer's as if it were spelled Moore [to American ears].)  She's awfully good, reading with a clipped British accent for most of the narrative. I thought this was an excellent choice for Marian's story, as her short temper and headstrong actions are ably reflected in such no-nonsense speech.  Reading is called on to read a significant amount of French, which sounds perfect to my ignorant ears, and to read English dialogue with French, German, and American accents.  She pulls them all off with skill.

Reading's pacing is excellent throughout, but it just killed me too! As Marian makes the book's final journey into and out of Paris, Reading keeps it steady, but with an underlying tension that puts the listener in Marian's shoes (where you don't really want to be).

Mawer's drew his inspiration for Marian Sutro from Anne-Marie Walters, whose post-war memoir -- Moondrop to Gascony -- holds pride of place on his bookshelf. He pays tribute to Walters by making Marian's code name Anne-Marie, and by dedicating the book to her via her own code name: Colette.

The book's original title is The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (which was already taken by this book in the United States).  Usually, I don't like it when they change the names of books when they head to our shores, but in this case Trapeze adds a note of glamour and suspense that the original title lacks.

[The photograph of Anne-Marie Walters was retrieved from the alumni website of the International School of Geneva.  Both Anne-Marie and Marian were alumnae.]

Trapeze by Simon Mawer
Narrated by Kate Reading
Blackstone Audio, 2012.  11:26

Sunday, June 23, 2013

How can a book of my childhood be 50 years old?

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of those books I remember so fondly from my childhood reading. I suspect it was not the only orphan-in-peril book I read in elementary school, but it is certainly the most vivid. It has been on my I-should-read-this-again list pretty much since I became a youth librarian, and I remember being surprised that it wasn’t available on audio.  But, in its 50th year, the smart publishers at Listening Library rectified this. They also found an unusual, but pretty terrific narrator to do the reading. More about that below.

If this wasn’t a favorite of your youth, here’s a brief synopsis. Sylvia is an orphan living with her great aunt in very genteel poverty at the top of a townhouse in London. The great aunt has rich relations, but doesn’t speak to them anymore. However, she realizes that Sylvia needs more than she can provide and makes arrangements to send her off to those relations and their boisterous daughter, Bonnie, at the family estate deep in the English countryside. This is what we now call an alternative 19th century England where wolves (who came to England through the recently opened Channel Tunnel) descend from the forests during lean winters and terrorize the people unable to find shelter at night. Timid Sylvia has a very scary journey to Willoughby Chase when wolves attack her train. Fortunately, a strange man comes to her rescue.  It turns out that this man is also on his way to Willoughby Chase to join his friend Miss Slighcarp, who will be the governess for Bonnie and Sylvia while Bonnie’s parents take a journey to warmer climes in the hopes of curing Lady Green of her mysterious wasting disease.

But, of course, Miss Slighcarp turns out to be more than a little unpleasant (how could she not, with that name?), bundling the girls off to Aiken’s equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, when she learns that Lord and Lady Green have perished on their ocean journey. And soon, Bonnie and Sylvia – accompanied by their friend Simon the goose boy who lives on the Willoughby Chase grounds – make their escape in the hopes of making their way to join Sylvia’s great aunt in London.

The two girls are extremely plucky, of course, but their journey nonetheless is a perilous one, full of close calls and lupine terrors. Even when they arrive in London, their troubles are not over, but – in the end – good does indeed triumph. Aiken’s got a sly sense of humor that keeps an adult’s interest, but she also knows what children want to read: toe-tingling suspense combined with the world put aright in the end.  The book doesn’t seem the slightest bit as if it’s 50 years old, which makes it a classic I guess. The delightful Edward Gorey covers don’t hurt one single bit.

Aiken’s daughter Lizza Aiken narrates the novel.  Before the story starts, she also reads a brief intro-duction (that might be of more interest to adults than children, which means I enjoyed listening to it) describing the circumstances (unexpected widowhood [shades of The Railway Children]) that led her to write down the stories she had created for her two children. Joan Aiken was clearly a wonderful bedtime storyteller, as the chapter endings are cliffhangers and the child heroes easy to identify with.  

In her narration of the book itself Lizza Aiken is a surprisingly good reader.  She has a fairly soft (but not difficult to hear) pleasant reading voice that has a dare-I-say grandmotherly (let’s pause for a moment of eek-dom as she is just a few years older than I) calm and confidence.  A listener knows she is in good hands with this reader.  Her familiarity with the story shows in the way she expertly paces the narrative. She doesn’t try to create any voices for the characters, which is just fine as this novel for elementary school readers has dialogue that is easily followed with the “Bonnie said” convention. Aiken does change her voice enough so that you know you are listening to an adult or a child, but that is the extent of her character development.

I was actually surprised how much I liked this (unlike the occasional book of my childhood that doesn't measure up to an adult reading).  Do you suppose this was the start of my love affair with the English novel?

I wrote this and the previous post during a long layover in O’Hare Airport. I had to write them in Word first because there is no free wifi there. Last year at this time, I was waiting in Los Angeles’ Union Station and encountered the same damn thing as I tried to post an entry. Am I really so spoiled in the tech-friendly Pacific Northwest?  Is free wifi in transportation hubs an exception rather than the rule?  It’s bad enough you have to pay in a hotel room (a room that you are already paying for), but in transit?  Free is a no-brainer.

P.S.  In answer to the question raised in my post title, it's best not to think about it.

[The illustration of students at Dotheboys Hall is from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and was retrieved from the British Library.]

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (The Wolves Chronicles, Book 1) by Joan Aiken
Narrated by Lizza Aiken
Listening Library, 2012. 4:48  

That's Italian

It was probably Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review who first alerted me to Detective Salvo Montalbano of the Vigàta police somewhere in coastal Sicily.  Montalbano is now a Sicilian industry, as I witnessed Montalbano-themed bus tours when I visited Sicily.  (This was a pleasant surprise [even though I didn’t sign up for one of these], as the other "pop" bus tours seemed to be all Godfather oriented. Really? That film is now 40+ years old, the Mafia is but a pale shell of its former self (thanks to two martyred Sicilians, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino) yet Marlon Brando still adorns t-shirts in the tacky souvenir shops.  Interestingly, no Sopranos-themed items were evident – perhaps they are too American?) 

The fictional Vigàta is believed to be the town of Porto Empedocle, hometown of its creator, the now 87-year-old (and still writing) Andrea Camilleri.  I’d read a couple of these quirky detective novels, but when I found the “next” one I was supposed to read available as an audiobook, I knew it would be just the thing to listen to while soaking up the atmosphere in the home of my ancestors. This would be Voice of the Violin, the fourth book in the series, which was first published in Italy in 1997.  Inspector Montalbano is the chief criminal investigator, classically “maverick” in the way he flaunts authority, believes his hunches and always gets his man. Of course, this is Sicily, so he might get his man, but said man often doesn’t end up paying for his crimes in a conventional way.

In Voice of the Violin, Camilleri spins out what appear to be several disparate plot strands, which Montalbano deftly weaves together. This one involves a locked room mystery (nude woman found smothered to death with no physical clues present), a “slow” adult who suddenly disappears from his loving family, and a priceless violin that has found its way into the hands of a reclusive musician who offers occasional lunchtime concerts to his homebound downstairs neighbor who happens to be a friend of Salvo. Add to the mix, Salvo’s high-maintenance and long-distance fiancée, the young African boy they are attempting to adopt (he’s a leftover plot strand from the previous installment), the precinct’s dullard who turns out to have a surprising skill with the “new” computers, and publicity-seeking idiotic superiors, and it’s a miracle that it all gets wrapped up in five hours.  But it does, naturally and unhurriedly, and – of course – satisfactorily.

Camilleri doesn’t shy away from the influence of the Mafia in his novels, which is – of course – the reason why the bad guys often go unpunished; but in Voice of the Violin, they play a minor role.  A made man actually helps Montalbano prove that the prime suspect is innocent, although there’s no doubt that the alliance he creates is a dangerous one.

The setting shines in these novels as well.  Montalbano lives in what sounds like a delightful casa where the Mediterranean is at his doorstep and the many descriptions of the sea and the countryside are vividly portrayed.  The Inspector is also very fond of a good meal, it is possible to dine vicariously on the pastas, fish and wine lovingly described and consumed.

There were also places in the novel where references are made to Sicily and Sicilians, often made with a literary shrug, along the lines of “that’s just how Sicily is.”  I felt that I had witnessed that “Sicilian” experience in even the two short weeks I spent there.

(Even though I finished this book nearly six weeks ago, it is still – as evidenced by all I had to say about it here  -- still fresh in my head.  This confirms my approach to vacation reading: Always try to read a contemporary novel about where you are going.  Incidentally, aside from Inspector Montalbano (whose subtitled adventures are also available on DVD), this was very difficult to do.  A search of Sicily Italy – Fiction mostly brought up thrillers related in one way or another to the mob. Sigh.)

One of the things that make a Camilleri novel special, evidently, is that he writes in a Sicilian dialect, which is ably translated by Stephen Sartarelli.  The novel reads naturally and well, except for one character – the aforementioned dullard, Catarella – who ends up sounding like a New Jersey mobster in the narrator’s interpretation.  But, this was my only objection to Grover Gardner’s excellent narration.  He creates distinct characters for Vigàta’s half-dozen police officers, reads the women’s parts with a minimum of breathy, high-pitched tones and keeps the short novel moving along nicely.  With the exception of Catarella I appreciated that Gardner reads this novel in “middle” American English.  The last Italian detective novel I listened to turned me off this genre in audio completely, with its ridiculously sounding (to my ears) Italian-accented English.

(There was an odd little moment while I was listening, when the version on my player skipped a few tracks.  A little later on, there was a reference to Montalbano kissing a woman to whom he was not engaged.  I didn’t remember this at all, and relistened to a whole disc to see where I had missed it.  It was only when I returned to the States and listened to the actual disc that I caught this particular incident. I must have bumped it or something when I was downloading the discs onto my computer.)

The other books I read about Sicily were a bit of a slog compared to this, although I did enjoy the nonfiction I read: Sicilian Odyssey by Francine Prose. Not to be missed if you are planning a trip to that fair island.  It is an amazing place.

[Cefalù (pictured here in a photo taken by me) is on the opposite coast (north instead of south) from Vigàta/Porto Empedocle), but each is a beautiful Mediterranean Sicilian village.]

Voice of the Violin (Inspector Montalbano, Book 4) by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Narrated by Grover Gardner
Blackstone Audiobooks, 2008.  5:17

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Not your daughter's Harry Potter

Once I got over hearing the F-bomb uttered by a teenage character in J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy I settled back to enjoy this massive novel, modeled after those of Dickens or Trollope. Not that this book achieves the significance of either of those two 19th century greats, in their ability to agitate for social justice while telling a good story with empathetic characters; but I found it worth listening to.

Rowling's story takes place in a small English town called Pagford. Pagford struggles with a social and economic divide -- the long-time or middle-class residents living in ease and smug satisfaction mostly don't like the people who live in The Fields, a dilapidated low-income housing complex that includes a drug-rehab center. A son of The Fields, Barry Fairbrother, managed to educate and work himself into the middle class and he has since worked diligently to help others get out of The Fields, most recently a troubled teenager named Krystal Weedon. He sits on the parish council and has organized a voting bloc that has prevented a redrawing of the town's boundaries so that The Fields will no longer be Pagford's "problem."

But, at the beginning of The Casual Vacancy, Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm, creating the titular opening on the council. And the rest of the 18-hour novel tells the story of all those Pagfordians affected by Barry's death and how the vacancy is ultimately filled. The machinations of good and evil (liberal and conservative in this case), the back stories, the Dickensian side stories that are really not necessary but enjoyable nonetheless all build slowly to the inevitable catastrophe.

The characters are lively ones, although the teenagers are much more interesting than the adults (who aren't particularly complex, tending toward one-note-dom). Rowling clearly identifies and sympathizes with her teenagers; not surprising really. Moments of the book are quite touching -- particularly those involving Krystal, who is smart enough to know that she should get away from The Fields, but sees only a few disastrous ways of achieving this. Her tragedy is profound, she's almost like the deeply good Dickens' characters who always die (although Krystal's tragedy could be that she doesn't die).

What made this novel -- which some found tedious -- particularly pleasurable for me is Tom Hollander's narration. It might very well be one of those books that listens better than it reads (I might be in the middle of one of these right now ... I'm finding my current print read to be a bit of a slog).  Hollander is fantastic. He deftly manages the large cast of characters, finding distinct and realistic voices for each. I enjoyed all of them, but particularly Fairbrother's chief opponent, the bombastic Howard Mollison; Howard's cigarette-smoking business partner Maureen; the disaffected entitled schoolboy "Fats" Wall; Parminder (pronounced without that final 'r') Jawanda, Barry's chief ally on the council, who has a pleasant Hindi-(Sikh?) tinted accent; and Krystal, loud and screechy (and profane and disrespectful) but incredibly tender with her baby brother Robbie.

Hollander also has the perfect voice for this novel about mostly self-important people behaving badly. He's got a slightly nasal delivery and he reads the narrative sections with a sense of ironic superiority that is enjoyable to hear and just right for the supercilious omniscient narrator. He also raps and sings! I've only listened to him read one other time, A Clockwork Orange, where he was also quite spectacular; so I'd be happy to encounter him again. He seems limited in his movie/TV work to variations on the upper-class twit, but he's really got a surprising range.

So, can J.K. Rowling "write for adults?" For anyone who has read Harry Potter, this conversation seems to be inevitable. I don't think she's a "great" writer (a la Dickens), but I think she can tell a good story. There was a lot of extraneous material in The Casual Vacancy, which could frustrate a reader, but I was willing to let it be revealed to me in the author's time (and with the help of a master narrator). And she's not the only writer who commits this sin, so why are we so quick to judge her harshly for it? The money she makes, probably. But isn't there something satisfying in someone who gets rich writing, rather than creating an app or an overpriced computer, or -- leading away from the creative side of things -- building bombs or crappy real estate developments?

[Barry Fairbrother was able to connect with Krystal by cajoling her into joining the rowing team.  This crew is from Toronto, photographed by Sherurcij, and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Narrated by Tom Hollander
Hachette Audio, 2012.  17:55

Saturday, June 8, 2013

It ain't me, it ain't me ...

I feel like I've been behind all year, but now I'm really behind. (So far behind that I'm not going to celebrate Audiobook Month [look, they're behind as well] or Week, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't.) Since I returned from vacation, I've been reading long books in an attempt to find some time to catch up with the blogging, but I'm still listening at a pretty rapid clip (even though I've not started walking again). So, here's number one of the six (and counting) books that are in the rear-view mirror -- a book I finished six weeks ago.  (Herewith the disclaimer of not-able-to-remember-much.)

Walter Mosley is one of those authors I keep meaning to read, but never have; so when I was casting about at the shelves looking for something that I could finish up before I left on vacation and spotted Fortunate Son, I decided to give it a listen.  (Of course, I had to check first to make sure I wasn't picking up an Easy Rawlins book mid-series, oh the horror!)  I'm not sure I understood it. I think it is meant to be a fable.

Tommy Beerman was born prematurely with lung problems, and has lived in neonatal intensive care at the hospital ever since. His mother, Brianna, visits him as often as she can but she needs to work and the hospital is a long way across Los Angeles (by bus) from her work and home. Late one night, Dr. Minas Nolan spots her waiting for her bus and offers her a ride home. Minas is a grieving new father, as his wife died giving birth to their son -- the hale and hearty Eric. Soon he is taking Brianna home every night.  Brianna is black and Minas is white. They become lovers and Minas convinces Brianna that the only way Tommy will survive is if she brings her frail son home. Brianna and Tommy move into Minas' mansion, Brianna begins nurturing the motherless Eric and the boys -- different in race but in many other ways as well -- grow close.

Brianna dies when the boys are about eight or nine, and Tommy's birthfather -- uninterested in him until now -- removes him from the Nolan's home. Tommy is neglected, soon figures out how to stop attending school (where he is bullied), and begins living on the street working for a local drug dealer. Eric rages against the losses in his life and becomes an overachieving, but emotionally distant, athlete and student. The boys' paths will cross again.

The title is ironic (I think) as the "fortunate" son (Eric) can't make human connections, while the less fortunate Tommy experiences jail, beatings, rape, hunger and social isolation (all before he's 20 years old), but retains his humanity. It all seemed a bit obvious to me, but maybe I've completely missed the point. The moral of the fable is ... there is more than one way to be fortunate? As I said, fairly obvious. So, I listened to this book anticipating some additional enlightenment, some twist, some complexity. It never came. I didn't care for it much.

The actress Lorraine Toussaint reads the novel. I enjoyed listening to her deep, silky voice which switches easily from the urban black inflections of Tommy's relatives and acquaintances to Minas' patrician and slightly Scandinavian tones to an immigrant Chinese housekeeper to a black woman on her way to law school.  Tommy's gentle soul is evident in her interpretation, as is the remote and aloof Eric. Her narrative voice is pleasing, but accurately reflects the situations in which the two boys find themselves. As a woman, she is an interesting choice to tell this story, but she does a fine job.

I'm not much of a music listener (I hardly ever listen to music now that there are audiobooks), and I never have been. But in my youth, I loved Creedence Clearwater Revival (why? that is a very good question ... those guys were bad boys and I was mostly a good girl). All the time I was listening to this book, one of the other tracks of my brain is saying, "Wasn't there a song with this title?"  Why yes there is and it's from CCR and it's the favorite song of those who cared enough to vote for their favorite at that website. Let's pause for a short trip down memory lane.  (Post title is the song's chorus.)

[The 1968 photo of CCR appears to be in the public domain as it was published without a copyright notice. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley
Narrated by Lorraine Toussaint
Time Warner AudioBooks (now Hachette), 2006.  9:25