Monday, September 29, 2014

Nasty, dirty things, little girls are

Of the five 2014 Odyssey Award audiobooks (one I had already listened to and the others are here and here [haven't gotten around to Creepy Carrots yet]), Roald Dahl's Matilda was the one I was looking forward to the most. And not just because of its glamorous narrator, but because Matilda is one of those books that one can revisit several times with enjoyment. I've only read the book as an adult, but it has Dahl's anarchic appeal that makes it pretty much for anybody.

Matilda Wormwood is a genius child with extremely bad parents (they make her watch TV!) who learns to read at a very young age. At the library -- where she visits every day instead of sitting at home alone -- once she reads through the children's section, the librarian puts all sorts of books into her hands. Once she's old enough, she's thrilled to be able to go to school. There she meets her wonderful teacher, Miss Honey, along with the terrifying headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. But Matilda has powers that help her to best the nasty adults in her life and soon finds happiness with her proper family.

Dahl cheerfully skewers TV (how he hated TV), TV dinners, used car salesmen, self-obsessed adults, sadistic school teachers, plus more that I can't remember in this romp of a story. While Miss Trunchbull's violence toward her students is silly enough to not be threatening, Matilda's revenge on her and on her parents is beyond satisfying and pretty hilarious. What's not to like?

Add to this enticing package the delightful reading by Kate Winslet. Her narration of the text is nice and straightforward, leaving room for a broad range of character voices, full of humor and intelligence. Matilda speaks with a slightly nasal childishness that's very appealing, while Miss Honey has an ingenue's innocence. The Wormwoods are shrieky and bombastic, and the "deep and dangerous" voice of Miss Trunchbull is indeed that. Dahl describes her as physically able to "bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half," and Winslet helps us to visualize this monster with just her voice. Everyone has a bit of a working-class accent that adds a nice ordinariness to the novel's denizens.

The beginning and end of the novel are marked with a good 60 seconds of sprightly little tune that nicely encapsulates the story -- there's a bit of Miss Trunchbull in a percussive beginning which then segues into a sweeter melody that evokes the triumph of Miss Honey and Matilda.

In addition to the 1996 film, there's also Matilda the Musical. It won both the Olivier and the Tony Award for Best New Musical but do I really want to see the road show (when/if it arrives)? The answer to that is no ... isn't it lovely that Winslet is available practically anytime and at no charge to bring this story to vivid life?

[Perhaps the Wormwoods enjoyed this in front of the TV one night? This TV dinner was uploaded by Smile Lee and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Matilda by Roald Dahl
Narrated by Kate Winslet
Penguin Audio, 2013.  4:18

Monday, September 8, 2014

'Twere well it were done quickly

Could this be the first Alan Cumming narration I've heard that isn't a book for children? (The answer to that question is yes.) He can be rather adult in his performing and personal lives, but I don't think of him as a reader of books for grown-ups. Regardless, when I heard about this audio interpretation of his one-man Macbeth, I knew I would have to listen to it. And so I have.

Do you need a synopsis? Well, there's this Scottish lord-guy and he meets these three witches and they tell him that he's going to be King of Scotland. He tells his very ambitious wife this news and she pretty much convinces him that -- instead of waiting to become King -- he should be a little more active in bringing it about. So he kills King Duncan, and then he kills his friend Banquo who was the other witness to what those three witches said. And then the sons of King Duncan ally themselves with a good guy named Macduff and go to war against Macbeth, who by this time has gone a little whack. There's some more prophesying from the witches that convince Macbeth that he's invulnerable, but he's not. There are a lot of dead people at the end of the this play and the word blood appears in the text 42 times (according to college freshman Ivsuey on enotes.com).

Cumming set his theatrical version "in a clinical room deep within a dark psychiatric unit. [He] is the lone patient, reliving the infamous story and inhabiting each role himself. Closed circuit television cameras watch the patient's every move as the walls of the psychiatric ward come to life." However, it wasn't a one-man show (as I thought), other actors (including narrator Jenny Stirlin) are credited on the show webpage.

OK, it's all in the mind of a mentally ill person. Just listening, the play could have taken place in Glamis Castle or in the psych ward. Either way, it's just Cumming and the words. And it is something special. Cumming delivers nearly all the dialogue in his soft Scottish burr, with each of the characters given a distinct and natural sounding voice. I wish it hadn't been so long since I listened to this, because I can't remember many of the vocal details for the characters but once the action gets going and you only need to know a handful of voices, it is easy to determine who is speaking. Cumming is just superb when he reads women, so Lady Macbeth is sexy and confident and the witches are eerie and disturbing. Over all, in what is a fairly odd way to experience this play (or any play for that matter), Cumming manages to have ongoing dialogue with himself in an unaffected way.

There are very few audio effects, the only one I remember is the speech of the weird sisters, who sound distorted and their voices are occasionally mixed together.

Cumming also reads the stage directions, which are famously brief, in a slight whisper. Since the entry of every character is noted in the directions, this is very helpful when trying to keep characters straight.

On the other hand, if you aren't familiar with the Scottish play, I can see that hearing it this way could become mighty confusing. Who are all these people and what are they talking about? Without the stage action, i.e., the witches' dance around the bubbling cauldron, the drunken porter, Banquo's ghost pointing his bloody finger, Lady Macbeth wandering around in her nightgown, and the moving forest; it's hard to find a focal point to the story. It's just words.

The audiobook has original music, or music original to the play, that is interpolated between each of the five acts. It's by Max Richter and -- while tuneful -- it certainly reflects someone disordered in his own mind. Each break reveals a different piece of music, rather than the same 30-second squib. I so appreciate any thoughtful music added to audiobooks.

It turns out there are a few adult audiobooks narrated by the talented Mr. Cumming, one by Michael Ondaatje and another by Michael Cunningham. Possibly good stuff to be heard.

[When I was in college, I wrote a major paper on the English actress Ellen Terry. This is a very famous painting of her, by John Singer Sargent, in the role of Lady Macbeth. By all accounts, a triumph. The Tate Britain owns this painting and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Macbeth by William Shakespeare [oh yeah, forgot to mention that!]
Narrated by Alan Cumming
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012. 1:44

Thank you for smoking

As I begin to gather my thoughts here about Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies, two months or so after finishing it, I realize that it bears a somewhat embarrassing resemblance to a more recently completed audiobook, Mary Doria Russell's Doc. Both are historical fiction (taking place just ten years apart) based on actual people.  If I hadn't already declared myself deeply enmeshed in World War II, I would say that I have another unhealthy fixation on the Victorian era. But, as happens so often, I digress.

Beautiful Lies is the story of Maribel Campbell Lowe and her bohemian circle in 1887 London. Maribel is married to a radical member of Parliament, an avowed Socialist who is agitating for the rights of working class and unemployed Englishmen and women. She has exotic origins (born in Chile, educated in Paris), is addicted to nicotine in the form of cigarettes, she's recently taken up photography, and she (and her beloved -- if philandering -- husband) is hiding a really, really big secret about her origins. Should this secret come out, it would be the end of Edward's career and their prominent place in society. So, when an inquisitive newspaper reporter comes sniffing around at the same time that Maribel hears from her long-absent mother, the Campbell Lowes face possible ruin.

Clark's expertise in this novel is the way she incorporates an awful lot of strands into her basic plot -- we meet Buffalo Bill Cody and some of his Indian performers and watch a performance of his Wild West Show; the intricacies of early photography are explained in detail, as are the unusual natural portraits that Maribel specializes in; the Bloody Sunday Trafalgar Square riot and its aftermath (including an appearance by William Morris) is described; there is a brief foray into spiritualism; we even take a trip to Spain to explore a depleted mine. The novel doesn't feel stuffed, at least to me (I love details like this), but it makes it more impressionistic than a story with a compelling plot line (the oh-my-god-he-will-expose-us plot line turns out to be a bit of not-very-much).

Still I can't deny that the in-depth look into late Victorian political intrigue and society was fascinating to me. Maribel and Edward Campbell Lowe seem very modern in many ways, particularly Maribel with her cigarettes and camera. The couple is closely based on Robert and Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (although if you click on this link, the "secret" will be revealed ... as it is fairly early on in the novel), who are among the ranks of the many Victorians who belie the era's reputation for conservatism and a love of the status quo. Clark's lengthy author's note is full of interesting information and she draws excellent parallels between 1887 and 2012, including our cult of celebrity.

A long-time narrator with several narrator alter egos, Wanda McCaddon, reads the novel. She reads clearly and smoothly, with a pleasant nasal quality, and supplies plenty of honest emotion in this novel of Victorian sentiment and enthusiasms. Her characters (of both genders and many social classes) sound natural and are easily distinguished one from another, and she is able to provide authentic accents for all of them, including a slightly Spanish-tinged lisp for Maribel's public persona.  

A somewhat familiar piece of flute music that sounds like an actual musical work rather than just a little tune for intro purposes plays at the beginning and end of the novel. And yes, Dreamscape, I appreciate the music, but this audiobook's cover is way too generic. The original cover shows Maribel smoking in a highly stylized way, was that too dangerous? (I'm really never going to not be a children's librarian.)

I had this audiobook checked out for a long time before listening to it, and when I finally got it into my ears it was not the novel I'd expected. A few years ago, I'd read and enjoyed Clark's first novel, The Great Stink; as you know I enjoy certain compulsions, one of which is to read an author's books in publication order (not just series' books, although I'm rigid in this regard). In this case, I thought I was listening to an earlier (although, true confession time, not her very next book) Clark novel, one that takes place in 18th century Louisiana. It's funny how things go screwy in your mind when something is not what it's "supposed" to be. There were a few tracks of listening before I admitted my confusion and went to the catalog to find out that I was really more than 150 years into the future and in another country. Still, as a lover of historical fiction, I'll probably get to Savage Lands eventually. I wonder if it, too, is based on the life of a real person?

[This portrait of the "Chilean" beauty, Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (no hyphen, please!), was taken by Frederick Hollyer and resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections in London. Do you suppose that fur hat came from Wild Bill Cody?]

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark
Narrated by Wanda McCaddon
Dreamscape, 2012. 15:02

Friday, September 5, 2014

Gay-girl gay

I rose in the middle of the night to catch a plane at 5:40 a.m. to come visit my mom in Iowa City, Iowa -- so 11 hours later I am completely exhausted -- but determined to use all my free time over the next five days (when I'm not helping her unpack in her new apartment) to at least throw away one part of the crappy notes I've been scribbling down about the audiobooks I listened to this summer.

Which brings me to e.E. Charlton-Trujillo's Fat Angie, part of my (why-do-I-set-these-ridiculous) goals to read all of the 2014 ALA award winners since I did such a lousy job of reading books for youth last year. (I'm tantalizingly close to completion.) This one was one of two Stonewall winners of the Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children's and Young Adult Literature Award. Since I have a young friend currently struggling with gender identity at the moment, I'm reading these books with interest.

Fat Angie is fat. She also wears (every single day) a too-tight bright-yellow tee shirt proclaiming membership on the girls' basketball team that belonged to her sister. Fat Angie is the only person who believes that her sister -- last reported captured in Afghanistan -- is still alive, and thinks if she keeps wearing the shirt (without benefit of laundry), she'll somehow keep her sister alive and her fracturing family together. Do I need to say, Fat Angie is relentlessly bullied, particularly since she publicly attempted suicide in front of a pep rally, shouting "We're all killers!" Then KC Romance blows into school.

KC doesn't care what others think and she takes a shine to Fat Angie. And as an intrigued Fat Angie slowly lets KC in on her darkest secrets, Angie might be able to begin coping with her losses. Fat Angie makes the momentous decision to try out for the girls' basketball team; despite her obvious lack of athletic ability, Fat Angie has a mean jump shot.

But just as Fat Angie thinks she might be falling in love, it turns out KC Romance has some secrets of her own.

There's nothing really new here, including the gay angle. At times it feels overloaded: weight issues, cutting, and unprofessional therapists added to the aforementioned bullying, dysfunctional families (skedaddling dad, fat-obsessed mother and drug-dealing adoptive brother) and lesbians. But for young readers who enjoy this type of story, Fat Angie does experience triumph, love and ultimately grief in a teen "problem" novel resolution way. I particularly didn't like the continual reference to Fat Angie only by her name, although this might be a drawback of listening. Eventually, the pronoun 'she' does show up (and I no longer remember the circumstances), but at that point it would seem to filled with some meaning, but there was no meaning that I could discern.

The book is read by Angela Dawe, who reads the book in an declamatory and emphatic manner which I'm going to guess is her way of providing the aural equivalent of Charlton-Trujillo's distancing technique that is the result of the (over) use of Fat Angie's (and other characters) proper names. As I said above, the constant repetition of Fat Angie grew tiresome. The whole package  makes this book kind of exhausting to listen to. On the other hand, I'm not sure I could have stuck with it in print.

Dawe does do a pretty good job with the novel's character voices. The boys sound uniformly realistic, and KC's voice sounds sultry and seductive (not in a pervy way). Angie's therapist's notes are read occasionally in a condescending fashion that is actually pretty funny. So, it's kind of a mixed-bag audiobook-wise.

Any author with an obviously not-born-with-it name will often set me off as well, but I enjoyed Charlton-Trujillo's explanation that she chose to honor two favorite writers: e.e. cummings and S.E. Hinton (although unlike The Outsiders, there's no doubt in my mind that Fat Angie was written by a woman). That's compelling enough that I guess I don't really need to know what those 'e's actually stand for. Charlton-Trujillo is also involved with television, but when I try to reach the website that features those activities, I get this message: "You have tried to access a web page which is in violation of your internet usage policy. Category: Malicious Websites." I didn't know I had an internet usage policy. Do you think it's because I'm on the network for the old folks' home? Curious.

[Fat Angie's sister's lucky tee shirt proclaims her a member of her school's Hornet's Nest. This enormous hornet's nest resides in the Bee Museum in Nakagawa, Japan. The photograph was taken by Mukasora and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
Narrated by Angela Dawe
Candlewick on Brilliance Audio, 2013 [although the end credits indicate that the "performance copyright" is 2012] . 6:27

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tucked away

Oh boy, two in one weekend! I hesitate to add this entry as I don't want this entirely unmemorable (I'm having trouble dredging up details from a listen of two months ago) book to be sitting at the top of the blog for what experience tells me may be awhile. Nevertheless, I'm seeking sanctuary from my home where the front yard is being loudly excavated this morning and there are a limited number of things one can do from a coffee shop. I briefly thought about going backwards (starting with Doc, finished last night), but my cooler (less flexible) head prevailed.

So, the 22nd in Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford series (the internet tells me that Reg is 50 years old this year ... that's actual years, not fictional ones), The Monster in the Box. Rendell (emphasis on the second syllable) writes a pretty good detective novel, but Wexford has never been one of the ones that I've followed eagerly, devouring the newest one shortly after its appearance. Instead, I've picked them up in a desultory (albeit in-order) way. The Monster in the Box is decidedly average Wexford.

It follows a somewhat convoluted plot involving a long-time nemesis named Eric Targo. Targo is an animal-loving serial killer who seems most interested in killing those that will bring him in contact with Wexford, taunting the inspector with Wexford's inability to connect him to the crimes. This happened on several occasions when Wexford was an inexperienced copper, extending to some stalkerish behavior, and then stopped. But now that Wexford's career is winding down, Targo has reappeared -- and seems to be engaging in some Strangers-on-a-Train-type (without the "prearrangement") murders -- and Wexford decides it's time to bring his second-in-command, Mike Burden, in on the hunt as a young Muslim woman living next door to Targo has disappeared. For 40 years, Wexford had put his concerns about Targo away in a box, but now it's time to open it back up.

Most interesting, when Wexford flashes back to his younger days, he revisits the courtship of his wife Dora (always a pleasure when you've met your characters comfortably settled into their marriage). But when you toss in the lion, pontification on political correctness, and a somewhat condescending explanation of Muslim mores; well it was really just a big yawn with a honkingly obvious metaphor. Wexford is not even given the satisfaction of running Targo in for his crimes.

But maybe it was a yawn because of the absolutely lifeless narration. The book is read by Nicolas Coster, who his evidently best known as a soap star.  Considering I've never heard of the publisher, Phoenix Audio, maybe they think he's good at this. (I reviewed the 16 holdings from this publisher at my library, and the narrators -- largely of the "celebrity" variety -- range from the excellent Peter Coyote to ... ahem, Shadoe Stevens. Oy!)

Anyway, Coster reads the novel with a husky whispering style, that lacks resonance and quickly begins to sound strained. He gets juicy quickly and his breathing is audible. Every sentence seems delivered with the exact same rhythm, mostly on the deliberate side. In dialogue, everyone (men and women) sounds a little effeminate, and he makes no effort to distinguish characters, or character voices from the narration. There's no cultural distinctions with the Muslim family and Coster can't even be bothered to pronounce this family's name, Rahman, as anything other than the ordinary rah-man (any other narrator I've listened to would give that first syllable that Arabic 'ch').

I've always felt a bit schizophrenic about Rendell; I simply don't read her stand-alone psychological suspense books, they scare the crap out of me. I do enjoy her pseudonymous writing as Barbara Vine, which take the "backwards" approach -- i.e., here's the bad thing that happened and now we'll go back in time to figure out why. The Monster in the Box seems to be neither of these, nor is it a conventional puzzle piece; it's almost like a character study. Not exactly what I look for in detective fiction.  Still, Rendell's usually reliable (and still writing at 84!), and her output is of the volume of her near-contemporary Anne Perry but with much more variety, so I'll keep up with her. Anyone can have a bad day.

[Eric Targo had a distinctive purple birthmark, called a naevus in this novel, spread across his face and neck. This is a Leucoraja naevus, or cuckoo ray, residing in the waters surrounding the United Kingdom. The photo was taken by Nikki Mahadevan as part of the Geograph Project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Monster in the Box (Inspector Wexford, Book 22) by Ruth Rendell
Narrated by Nicolas Coster
Phoenix Audio,  2009. 9:36

Monday, September 1, 2014

The two-month mark

Hello stranger ... sorry about the long absence. No excuse really, beyond sheer laziness. I'm so far behind that I don't actually know how many books I owe you, so I'm going to temporarily toss out rule number 1 which is to not skip ahead. Of all the books I've listened to in the past two months, one was a gift from a publisher through the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program and I need to pay my debts to others before working on my own. So, thanks Blackstone Audio for the terrific listen that is Lily King's Euphoria.

It's the 1930s, somewhere in the Melanesian island of New Guinea, and English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has just tried to commit suicide by wading into the river with his pockets full of rocks. The gentle Kiona tribesmen he has been studying rescue him, but he decides to take a little Christmastime R&R in a nearby white settlement. There he meets two other anthropologists who have recently fled a violent, possibly infanticidal/possibly cannibalist tribe, American Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen. Stone has recently published a groundbreaking work of research on tribes in the Solomon Islands and has achieved rock-star fame (much to the disgruntlement of Fen), and Bankson quickly finds himself falling under her charismatic spell.

Bankson helps the pair find a new tribe to study -- the matriarchal Tam -- one that is relatively near to his own and then tries to avoid visiting them too often. He does of course, and during one fevered evening the three of them devise what became the standard (Bankson tells us) of the study of human personality regardless of origins, The Grid (which I believe is a real thing, but I don't know the name of it). But there are cracks in the Stone/Fenwick marriage -- over many things: her fame, their inability to conceive a child, and strongly differing opinions about field work. When Fen takes an ill-advised return trip to their original tribe to "obtain" a valuable artifact, Bankson -- with all his neediness and admiration -- becomes Nell's lover. And that is, of course, the beginning of the end.

As others have mentioned in this book's many (positive) reviews, King story was inspired by the moment in Margaret Mead's life when she and her second husband, Reo Fortune, met the man who would become her third, Gregory Bateson while all three were deep in the New Guinea jungle. And, while the love triangle part is clearly true, King sent her story in a different direction.

A direction I was completely in tune with the entire time I listened to this brief novel. There was nothing I didn't like about this book. King's characters come to vivid life as they bicker, sweat, observe and engage with the tribal peoples with whom they are living, make love, and ultimately look back with loss and regret. The setting is alive with "mosquito rooms" in the anthropologists' houses, a wide variety of insect life and tropical diseases, the cacophony of a tribe welcoming back a long-lost member, the muddy, muggy river, and the point where the anthropologist achieves euphoria -- at two months ... when you've been accepted into the tribes' rhythms of life without losing your observational perspective.

Andrew Bankson tells us most of this story, from late in his life after he attended the 1971 opening of the Hall of Pacific Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History. It is interspersed with excerpts from the diary Nell keeps while in New Guinea, a diary that was handed to him by Nell's mentor following a speech he gave a few years earlier.

There are two wonderful narrators telling the story: the reliable Simon Vance and the new-to-me-but-equally-marvelous Xe Sands (pronounced EX-ee). They are really quite perfect. Vance brings his gravitas tinged with that audible emotion that he does so well to the suicidally lonely Bankson. You can hear the excitement and passion that develops in Vance's voice once he meets and falls in love with Nell. Sands reads Nell's diary entries with her pleasant husky, slightly nasal voice that sounds (in a good way) so tired, as if she's barely holding it together. When Nell writes about a breakthrough or a good session with the women or children, Sands' voice becomes livelier; we know what Nell lives for.

Both narrators do a fine job "reading" each other as well as the boorish Australian Fen, and the accents of the tribal peoples are distinct without being caricatures of indigenous speakers. Their pacing is impeccable, with natural pauses and variations for dialogue and descriptions.

As often happens, an encounter with a great story leads to thinking about a variety of things, i.e., what do I know about Margaret Mead? When I visited New York as a college student I stayed with a friend with an apartment nearby the Museum. This friend told me that Mead's office was in the building's turret on the corner of 79th and Columbus (?) and she is forever there burning the midnight oil in my imagination.

[This photo of Fortune, Mead and Bateson is from 1933 and was retrieved from the Library of Congress.]

Euphoria by Lily King
Narrated by Xe Sands and Simon Vance
Blackstone Audio, 2014. 6:53