Sunday, April 6, 2014

Terrible things can happen to you

I didn't know that Kate DiCamillo's Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures had more than spot illustrations until after I finished listening to it, so I'll say up front that I never felt I was missing anything while listening. Afterwards, however, I was curious to see how the reading text -- often in a comic-book-ish format -- was altered to make the audiobook, i.e., does the narrator read "Flora said" for a speech balloon? Listening to the beginning again while looking at some of K.G. Campbell's illustrations online, it's pretty clear that a significant amount of text was added ("Mrs. Tickham, without looking up: 'Goody'" is likely a panel showing Mrs. T reading with a speech bubble saying "Goody."), but I gotta say, I didn't notice how awkward this was until this listen. But boy, is that awkward.

Flora Belle Buckman, natural-born cynic, has promised that she will read books other than her favorite comic books about The Amazing Incandesto (a crimefighting pillar of light) this summer but she's having trouble living up to the contract that her mother made her sign. She looks up from her illicit reading to see a strange sight: Her neighbor, Mrs Tickham, seems to be vacuuming the yard. Actually, the vacuum seems to be in control. Flora watches as the vacuum slurps up a nearby squirrel and comes to a gurgling halt. They are able to rescue the squirrel from the innards of the vacuum, but quickly realize that this is no ordinary squirrel. Being ingested by a vacuum has endowed the squirrel with superpowers -- including super strength and an ability to leap tall buildings. It can't talk, but it can understand human speech. And, as it later demonstrates, it can write poetry ... using Flora's mother's typewriter.

Flora christens the squirrel Ulysses, after the vacuum cleaner, and then spends the remainder of the short novel trying to protect him from her mother's nefarious plans. Flora's mom -- without knowing that Flora is listening -- has asked Flora's dad (sadly divorced) to stick Ulysses into a pillowcase and smash him with a shovel. All ends well, of course, lessons learned and everyone changed for the better.

This was entirely too twee for me -- maybe it's because I'm not a comic-book lover? Although I have no doubt of its kid-friendliness, everyone was just a tad too quirky. A few examples: Flora's favorite expression: Holy bagumba! The boy who enters the story has declared himself traumatically blinded and insists on going by both first and last name: William Spiver. There's a demon cat stalking her father's apartment building. Flora's mother writes romance novels using a typewriter.

Tweeness aside, DiCamillo writes some funny scenes -- most memorably at the Giant Do-Nut diner and in the disaster scenarios in the back of her Amazing Incandesto comics under the heading: Terrible Things Can Happen to You! Except for the whole superhero squirrel thing, Flora seems like a real person -- comfortably a nerd and coping with her parents' recent divorce in what seemed to me to be an honestly kidlike way. DiCamillo's not afraid to slip in some big words for small readers (malfeasance, positing, or cynic for that matter) and introduces some big ideas from her father's neighbor, a vaguely Eastern European psychologist with a horsehair sofa (Rilke anyone?).

The audiobook is pretty good, considering the limitations of producing one based on an all-but-comic book. Narrator Tara Sands gives a lively and emotive reading, maintaining the novel's frenetic pace with cheerful energy. There are distinct and interesting characters, slightly artificial but not caricatured (not easy, considering the material) and consistent throughout the story. Every once in a while, Ulysses goes into superhero mode, and Sands cranks up the artificiality in her delivery to enhance the cartoony quality of the situation. A martial-like, Superman-ish musical theme plays under these portions of the story. It's fun, but the music peters out in an unresolved way, followed by a significant amount of silence. It's a bit of an odd finish to a promising beginning.

Back, briefly, to the awkwardness mentioned at the beginning. I didn't think twice about the text when I listened to this originally. I didn't think about the illustrations I was missing. But closely listening to what I quoted earlier, coupled with writing it down, makes the audiobook seem slightly Frankenstein-ish ... but after the fact. So, ultimately, I can recommend it. (Good for the family car trip, actually.)

DiCamillo was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I've enjoyed some of her work, but I'm not rabidly enthusiastic, even though I've read pretty much everything she's written. I'm amused to (belatedly) remember that she wrote the book my committee selected for the Odyssey Award. I haven't read enough of last year's children's books to second-guess the committee, but this seems a kind of lightweight selection. It won't be a hard sell to kids, though, and I guess that's what's really important.

Digression: I'm not an early adopter of anything, and I've got what my mother refers to as a Scotch soul (wallet requires crowbar). Having bared my soul, I share my small step into 21st-century technology: today I purchased a used, bilious-green iPod Nano. My trusty Sansa Clip was slowly dying and earlier this week I dropped it (accidentally) into a glass of water. It was time, I thought, to pay the Apple bucks for an iPod, but then spent about 20 fruitless minutes trying to find the visible menu on the iPod Shuffle I purchased the following day. I returned it, asking for the one where you could see what you were listening to. Ah, ma'am (god, I hate it when they call me ma'am), you want the Nano, just $100 more! Well past my price point, I ventured into the cutthroat world of Craigslist.

After a few false starts (no one will hold onto something you have said you would buy if you don't come buy it TODAY!), I now have a slightly dinged up 4th generation model, mine for $20. Believe it or not, I'm having trouble mastering on/off but I don't know if that's me or the aged (three-and-a-half years old) equipment. But considering how embarrassed I was to be seen with the CD player the last few days, I'll work on my "clickwheeling" technique. This has four times more space than my Clip, the audiobooks will be rattling around in there. Another advantage: I can now play Audible books (should I ever wish to -- gasp -- purchase one!)

["Rita jumped up and down. She put her hands to her head. She swatted and clawed trying to dislodge him. The harder she hit him, the more fiercely the squirrel clung." The scene at the Giant Do-Nut was retrieved from Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac.

[The photograph of the iPod 4th generation is from Apple and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
Narrated by Tara Sands
Listening Library, 2013.  4:30

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