Sunday, March 25, 2012

Armchair Audies: Rob Lowe Narrates Himself

It's Armchair Audies time! What's that? Never heard of them? Well, they're new. The Audies are annual "awards recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment" and are awarded in June. There are 29 categories and 5 contenders in each category, so that's a lot of audiobooks. Rather more than even an audiobook maniac like myself can handle, so to get a handle on them all, blogger Literate Housewife spearheaded the Armchair Audies. Interested bloggers will listen to everything from one (or more) categories and give their opinions. I chose to listen to the "Narration by Author or Authors" and the "Teens" categories.

Books I've already talked about in the "Narration by Author or Authors" category: Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, and Tina Fey's Bossypants. I also listened to Ellen DeGeneres's Seriously... I'm Kidding. Now it's Rob Lowe's turn:

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, written and narrated by Rob Lowe, 9 hours & 10 minutes long.

Lowe opens with a story about the loose connections between himself and JFK, Jr. which is a very effective tone-setter. It tells me he’s been through a long rough period and worked hard to achieve not only his professional success, but also his very happy personal existence. He moves to his Midwestern childhood, his parents’ early divorce and his escape into the magic of childhood stage acting. When he was in middle school, he moved with his brother, his mom, and her third husband to Malibu – into a house down the street from Martin Sheen and his similarly-aged sons. Stage acting is harder to come by in the Los Angeles area, but Lowe threw himself into screen work instead. Prime time television didn’t have a lot of interest in the lives of teenagers at the time, though a few commercials and after-school specials were payoffs for his constant auditioning.

Now, I never watched The West Wing – though after a chapter of this book I decided I should, and requested the first season from my library – and when I was a prudish teen (I’m a few years younger than Lowe) I thought there was no one to whom the phrase “Brat Pack” more aptly applied than to the too-pretty, arrogant-seeming, wild kid himself. (Well, maybe Robert Downey, Jr., too, but he had something redeeming in the depth of his eyes, according to my teenage self.) Not that I didn’t see St. Elmo’s Fire and plenty of other good Lowe performances – and plenty of not so good ones, as well. He was never someone whose poster I would hang on my walls. I do, however, love him on Parks & Recreation. In many ways, his character Chris Traeger is very much like Lowe as he is now: earnest, enthusiastic, healthy (though not as much of a nut about it all.) So despite the book suffering from many of the same faults of other celebrity memoirs – glossing over some of the depths of his personal hell, casting a VERY rosy light on his own hard work and determination, a certain “I promise if they’d only done X or Y with this film instead of shafting me, however unintentionally, you’d have been AMAZED by my brilliance in it” vibe about many of his less-successful roles – I quite enjoyed Lowe’s stories about himself.

His narration is super-smooth and fun to listen to, for the most part. He is great at inflections, at varying his pitch and pacing to suit the mood of his narrative. He sounds like he is smiling when he reads. Unfortunately his Coppola voice sounded more like a Kermit voice, and he pulled that a couple of times – giving very odd sounding tones to the directors or actors with whom he was relaying conversations. As far as I know, they really do sound that way, but it seemed as that squeaky effeminate tone came out with people who really should have “done X or Y with this film instead,” while people whose association with him ended well for his career were portrayed with more pleasing voices. It’s probably quite natural – I’m sure I do it myself, just ask me to tell you about that Parisian girl who always was around to “help” my high school boyfriend study French. But in a self-narrated celebrity autobiography it smacks of a lack of a certain critical self-awareness that dovetails with that whole “I should have been treated better” tone. Not that I expect any sort of “of course they cut me because my line-reading was ridiculous” or “I was too high to perform well and no sane director would cast me at that point” self-deprecation. I just see it as a problem with the genre of celebrity memoir, which you’ll probably see again when I give my final judgment on this category in the Armchair Audies. I would love to hear Rob Lowe narrating someone else’s work – he has a wonderful voice. I only wish I didn’t have the feeling that someone had pointed out to him that he was weird-voicing certain people and he had responded with, “But that’s how they sound,” or “It’s funny that way,” or some other justifying remark, and refused to think critically about his own narrative choices.

I’m making him out to be monstrous in that regard. He’s not. He has a lot of interesting stories to tell, a lot of intelligent commentary about Hollywood in the 70s and 80s, a lot of revelatory interactions with a host of big names, all of whom become more human and accessible through Lowe’s portrayals. He was a tenacious and supportive son though some difficult times with his mother, and he’s applied hard lessons from his childhood to the work of raising his sons. His intense love for his wife and children shines throughout. All in all, it’s a well-written autobiography, and an engagingly-narrated one. 

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