Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Armchair Audies (Bonus!) Category Report: Solo Narration - Female

I'm not an official Armchair Audies judge for the Solo Narration - Female category, but I listened to them all, and I'm opinionated, so I'm posting my report. (The Audies bring out all kinds of wonkiness in me. More audiobooks! MORE! I love my audiobooks.) (In case you hadn't noticed.)

So: the nominees are
Lene Kaaberbøl, Agnete Friis
Read by Katherine Kellgren (AudioGO)
Read the review 

Read by Anne Hathaway (Audible, Inc.)
Read the review 

Read by Katherine Kellgren (Harper Audio)
Read the review 

Read by Nicola Barber (HighBridge Audio)
Read the review 

Read by Cassandra Campbell (Tantor Media)
Read the review 

And I've posted about Juliet in August and The Boy in the Suitcase.

A little about the others: 
Worth's Call the Midwife is anthropologically interesting. It's nice. But I never quite got past feeling like I was at a lecture, despite the nice descriptive details. Barber does a fine job of narrating, but I wasn't engaged. 

Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one gonzo loopdiloop of a book. I mean, the movie doesn't begin to do it justice. Lands where everything's made out of china, and magical wish-granting hats, and those slippers are silver, not ruby. Hathaway comes up with some funny voices and seems to fully enjoy the material, so it was fun to listen, even though she seemed to breathe in odd places sometimes. 

Wood's The Unseen Guest is the third in her funny Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. It's kid lit, about a governess who finds herself in charge of three foundling siblings who appear to have been raised by wolves. They speak in a series of yips and howls, and mangled words, and are wont to go dashing out after their pet squirrel or otherwise end up in hot water. Not helping matters are the mysterious happenings with the other inhabitants of Ashton Place and the specter of threats from unknown external sources. Kellgren proves again her versatility and genius with voices as she produces wolf and bird language in addition to human, and listening to her read this series is nearly as entrancing as listening to her read my beloved Jacky Faber series. 

Kellgren also does a stellar job with the names and language demands of The Boy in the Suitcase, and really, either one of her titles in this category could easily win the award for her. 

But despite my delight in her work, my pick for the win is Campbell's narration of Juliet in August, partly because I liked the text itself more, but also because Campbell so fully inhabited the deceptively simple town and kept me fully present throughout the book.

Armchair Audies Category Report: Mystery

And my final official Armchair Audies category: Mystery! 

The nominees for the Audie award are:

Lars Kepler
Read by Mark Bramhall (Macmillan Audio)
Read the review 

Read by Ralph Cosham (Macmillan Audio)
Read the review 

Read by Linda Emond (Harper Audio)
Read the review 

HUSH MONEYChuck Greaves
Read by Dan Butler (AudioGO)
Read the review 

Read by Simon Vance (AudioGO)
Read the review 

Confession time! (All these detectives around, I'd better confess readily or who knows what will happen to me.) I didn't ever get around to Hush Money. I mean, I listened to the sample, and Butler's voice is fine - a little more nasal than I like, and he hits some notes a bit hard - but the book held no interest at all for me, and it took a long time to arrive from the interlibrary loan, so I just didn't listen.

Still, I listened to - and enjoyed - the rest. And talked about them. (The Beautiful Mystery, The Nightmare, The Good Thief's Guide to Vegas, And When She Was Good.) Overall, it was a strong category and a lot of happy hours of listening for me. I was already a fan of Penny and (to a lesser degree) of Lippman and Ewan, so I knew I'd have a tough time picking between them. 

But pick I did, and Cosham's narration of The Beautiful Mystery was enthralling. I look forward to hearing on Thursday that I am correct! I'm also going to continue listening to as much as these authors publish. (Give or take Greaves.)

Armchair Audies Category Report: Solo Narration - Male

The Audies are this week! You know what that means, dear readers: much Armchair Audies posting about them now, but then I'll shush a bit for a year. (Ha. I will not.)

Here's the slate of nominees for Solo Narration - Male:

Jerzy Kosinski
Read by Dustin Hoffman (Audible, Inc.)
Read the review 

John Boyne
Read by Michael Maloney (Tantor Media)
Read the review 

Jess Walter
Read by Edoardo Ballerini (Harper Audio)
Read the review 

Graham Greene
Read by Colin Firth (Audible, Inc.)
Read the review 

Benjamin Hoff
Read by Simon Vance (Tantor Media)
Read the review 

Now, I've already commented on each of these separately (Being There, The Absolutist, Beautiful Ruins, The End of the Affair, The Tao of Pooh), so I won't go too much into it. But I'll say this: we're looking here for "distinction in audiobooks" here. And for me, one of those parameters is, do I think this is more compelling than the text alone would be? Another: does the narrator do so good a job that I start looking for more narration by him (or her, but that's n/a in this category) and pick up audiobooks I wouldn't necessarily have looked at otherwise?

Beautiful Ruins succeeds magnificently on both scores. I actually started this book on paper, and didn't

get very into it before the library due date, so I returned it. But it was part of The Rooster competition, so I went back to it in audio, and oh, baby. It's grand. Ballerini brings such life to Walter's text (which I should have given a fairer chance, as it's quite magnificent and you should read or listen to it if you haven't already.) So Ballerini is my pick for the win, and it will be a very well-deserved one. (It's also up for Audiobook of the Year, and I'm expecting it to take that, too.)

2nd place: Maloney reading The Absolutist. It's a great book, very well read.

Then Firth reading The End of the Affair, then Hoffman reading Being There, and finally - and I know this is a shocking thing, but the book: blah and Piglet: gah - Vance reading The Tao of Pooh.

(Sorry, Simon Vance! You're still my #1 audio crush! Read different things and I'm there.)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Armchair Audies Category Report: Teen Fiction

I love listening to YA books. It works well with my desire to listen while on the job, generally - being more plot-driven than writerly - so as long as it's not too full of vampires and self-indulgently tragic teens, I like it. So I was delighted to sign up to opine about the Audies Teens category for the Armchair Audies.

Here are the nominees - as I said with my post about the Literary Fiction category, the 'read' link below includes a sound sample so you can judge my judging. 

Christopher Paolini
Read by Gerard Doyle (Listening Library)
Read the review

John Green
Read by Kate Rudd (Brilliance Audio)
Read the review

Alethea Kontis
Read by Katherine Kellgren (Brilliance Audio)
Read the review

Libba Bray
Read by January LaVoy (Listening Library)
Read the review

Terry Pratchett
Read by Stephen Briggs (Harper Audio)
Read the review

I have thoughts. :)

Inheritance is in last place for me. It's not Gerard Doyle's fault - I've enjoyed his narration of the Eragon series, he's great with tension and emotion and all the funny names involved. But this book didn't need to be 31 hours long. It didn't need to be 21 hours long. The convoluted wrapping up of the series just didn't flow nicely for me, so I was too often bored or frustrated while listening. So blame Christopher Paolini - or his editor - and enjoy anything else Doyle narrates.

The next three are all yummy texts, so it's harder to rank them. I'll put Diviners at the bottom of the bunch, despite my major fondness for Libba Bray, whose Beauty Queens I (correctly) pegged as the Narration by Author Audie winner last year. January LaVoy's narration is sweet and she handled the tension really well, but there is something a little too plummy about her voice that keeps me at a distance. I felt that this book - which takes place in the world of flappers and mysterious happenings in 1920s New York - should have had a narrator whose voice was younger and a little rawer. It's rare that I think a book would be better in print (as opposed to just as good, or better), but I wish I'd read this one instead of listening. 

Dodger, as I've said, is a grand character in a not-quite-grand-enough book. I loved listening to it, because Stephen Briggs was as sharp and bright and clever as the character he was telling us about, but Terry Pratchett's novel wasn't quite the gem I'd wished it to be. 

A gem in truth: Alethea Kontis's Enchanted. It is a treasure of a book, and Katherine Kellgren is pure magic as a narrator of YA books. (Of others, too - I follow her from genre to genre, but rarely in non-YA is she called upon to growl or howl or croak.) Her characters, be they human or fairy or frog, are charming and true and as I posted when I first listened to this book, I was caught up from beginning to end of the entire tale. Though I think Kellgren should automatically win every award, and I consider this as exemplary as it gets, I suspect the winner this year will be:

John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, narrated by Kate Rudd. There's a reason everyone you know has read this, even if they don't have teens in their lives pushing it on them. It's sweet and sad and smart and so very superb. I'll repeat: an amazing listen, but difficult, especially if you're not into bawling with headphones on. Rudd has an excellent teen voice, sarcastic and unsure and headlong and scared as the plot demands (and this plot demands a lot, emotionally, from the reader.) All thumbs up.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Merivel: A Man of His Time

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain
(W.W. Norton & Co. and also AudioGO, 2013)
Format: Audio download via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Sean Barrett)

From Goodreads: "Get ready to laugh, prepare to weep -- Robert Merivel is back in Rose Tremain's magical sequel to "Restoration." 
Robert Merivel, courtier to Charles II is no longer a young man -- but off he goes to France in search of the Sun King and to Switzerland in pursuit of a handsome woman. Versailles -- all glitter in front and squalor behind -- is a fiasco: Merivel is forced to share an attic (and a chamber pot) with a Dutch clock-maker while attempting to sustain himself on peas and jam and water from the fountains. Switzerland, by contrast, is perhaps a little too comfortable. But the lady, a clever botanist, leads Merivel deliciously on -- until her jealous husband bursts in with duelling pistols. 
As he narrates the picaresque journey, Merivel gets into all sorts of scrapes; he is torn between enjoying himself and making something of his life, through medicine and the study of science. He tries to be diligent, but constantly backslides into laugher and laziness. A big-hearted rogue who loves his daughter, his country house and the English King... Merivel is Everyman -- and he speaks directly to us down the centuries."

It's been a loooong time since I read Tremain's Restoration, so I didn't really look at this as a follow-up. Instead, it was a charming and crafty story of Robert Merivel's machinations as he moves throughout his world. Once something of a clown to Charles II, he has matured into a reflective and somewhat self-indulgent man. But the humor is still there. Merivel is a joy of a character, full of regrets and plans and love and loyalty. Above all, he loves his daughter and his king, and is willing to sacrifice his dignity and his safety in service to them. He has his triumphs, as well as his tragedies, and the memory of some hard times to ground him throughout. I truly enjoyed spending time with him. Tremain is an eloquent scribe, and it's easy to get carried away in her descriptive passages, especially of Merivel's travels. I don't think I'd have been much of a journey-taker if I'd lived with Merivel's road conditions.

Barrett has a strong voice, and was so smooth with the various European accents involved with this narration. I would have wished for the pace to be a touch tighter, because Merivel was so playful at times but the narration was consistently steady and measured. Otherwise I was quite caught up in listening.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Mysterious Series

So a couple of series to talk about now - both of them with books in the running for an Audie award for mysteries (one of my Armchair Audies categories), which is what brought me to them to start with. And they're very different, but both quite worthwhile.

Chris Ewan's Good Thief's Guide series centers on Charlie Howard, an English mystery writer and, oh yes, also a thief. He makes his way from city to city across the globe (Amsterdam, Paris, and Vegas that I've read so far - The Good Thief's Guide to Vegas being the audiobook nominated this year), and manages to find himself deeper and deeper in trouble wherever he goes. With the advice and help of his forbearing agent, Victoria, he eventually extracts himself - but not so cleanly that he can stay in the city he's just visited. So on the road again he goes (at the moment, in my reading of the series, he's on his way to Venice.) Ewan's writing is bright and clean, and Charlie is self-deprecating and not as smooth or adroit as he'd like to be, a great character to hang out with, even though he'll embroil you in all sorts of dangerous nonsense. The mysteries themselves are solid, and I always enjoy Ewan's descriptions of the locals and locales that Charlie encounters. 

Simon Vance reads the Good Thief's Guide series, and obviously I love it. His delivery is smooth and clean and engaging, and he picks up perfectly on the emotional sub-texts as well as the energy of the text. 

Lars Kepler's Jonna Linna series follows Swedish Detective Inspector Linna through some disturbing and dangerous territory in and around Stockholm. If you like complex, psychologically-twisted plots, read Kepler (which I found out is the pen name of a married couple of writers - Alexander and Alexandra Anhdoril - but my husband just acted like I was crazy when I proposed that we write a series together about a female private detective in 1930s Dublin, even though it is obviously a brilliant idea!) In the Audie-nominated The Nightmare, Linna investigates a suicide that wasn't, and an accidental drowning that also wasn't, and his instincts (like all good fictional detectives, his instincts are almost always right, even if there's no evidence to support that) tell him there's a connection. Although Linna's personal/emotional life is the least compelling thing about the series, as a detective he is fun to get to know, and I love the way he interacts with his colleagues. Kepler relies a little heavily on "horrid childhood leaves massive damage leading to creepy criminal adulthood" bad guys, but really commits to them once they're out there. 

The mellifluous Mark Bramhall reads the Jonna Linna series. He is a master of voices and tone, and there's something very fluid about the way he narrates. I'm not sure why I haven't posted about Bramhall before - though largely it's because I encounter him a lot on multi-voiced books - but I'm always happy to see his name on a project, because I can trust him to fully explore the text. This is no exception, and I particularly love when Kepler's characters are joking with each other, because there's an edge of teasing laughter that makes me smile along with Bramhall.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Drink With Me

Don’t remind me, don’t remind me: I’m a month behind on LesMis Project. At least. Valjean is turning in his coffin. (That’s what’s known as foreshadowing in the literary trades, BTW.)

But! This is the end of Volume 2: Cosette. Soon I will move on to Marius! First, though –

No more sweeping! Hooray!
Book Eighth – Cemeteries Take That Which is Committed Them
So, poor Fauchelevent is totally confounded about how Valjean and this kid appeared in his garden, but he’s committed to helping them, even though no men are allowed in the convent. He “understood nothing of the matter. How had M. Madeline got there, when the walls were what they were? Cloister walls are not to be stepped over. How did he get there with a child? One cannot scale a perpendicular wall with a child in one’s arms.” (p.354) (Well, not unless you’re Valjean you can’t, apparently.) But hey, Valjean had risked his life to save Fauchelevent, so turn about is fair play and all.

Fortunately for Valjean (who, let’s face it, does manage to get himself fortuitously out of as many scrapes as he gets himself in, at least since the initial 19 year prison term), one of the nuns is dying. This means a couple of things: everyone else will be distracted praying for her, and when she dies, outsiders have to enter to sign the death certificate and bring out her coffin. Fauchelevent and Valjean cook up a plan wherein Fauchelevent will stick Cosette in a basket and haul her off to a fruit-seller friend of his to await the next move. Meanwhile, somehow or another Valjean will get out then they will reenter under guise of Fauchelevent’s brother and niece, the one to be the gardener’s assistant, the other to join the convent school.

The nun dies, and Fauchelevent is summoned to the prioress. Now, Fauchelevent is actually a kinda clever guy, but he looks and acts like a simple guy. “The whole convent thought him stupid.” (p.359) So they don’t know that he recognizes all the bells and signals that happen in the place just like another language, and think he’s the old, lame, slow, totally unthreatening guy he makes out to be, which is perfect for their needs.

Reverend Mother starts an interrogation, and Fauchelevent his counter-interrogation, and eventually they come to the two essential points: he has a brother who he wants to come join him to help with the things he’s too infirm to do, and she wants him to pretend to send the dead nun to the cemetery but really put her (in the coffin she’s used as a bed for many years) (as you do) in the crypt under the convent. He mentions various legal and moral objections, which she adeptly bats aside, and logistical objections, which she tells him to figure out, and he finally agrees. As he’s leaving, she says his brother and niece can move in the day after the nun’s mortal remains are dealt with as she wishes. (He tries to get Valjean brought in to help with moving the slab that covers the crypt, describing his strength: “A perfect Turk!” (p.366) but Reverend Mother assures him he can do it on his own.)

“The strides of a lame man are like the ogling glances of a one-eyed man; they do not reach their goal very promptly.” (p.367) But eventually Fauchelevent gets back to the gardener’s cottage to relay the prioress’s plan. He still doesn’t know how he’s going to get Valjean out of the convent, though.

Valjean, of course, has a plan. Instead of sticking dirt in the dummy coffin to go to the cemetery, he’ll stick himself. “Jean Valjean gave way to one of those rare smiles which lighted up his face like a flash from heaven in the winter. ‘You know, Fauchelevent, what you have said: “Mother Crucifixion is dead.” And I add: “and Father Madeline is buried.’” (p.368) Despite the jokes, he convinces Fauchelevent that he’s serious, so they figure out the logistics of where to hide him pre-coffinization, and what kinds of air holes and provisions he’ll need, etc.

“What seemed unprecedented to Fauchelevent was, we repeat, a simple matter to Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean had been in worse straits than this. Any man who has been a prisoner understands how to contract himself to fit the diameter of the escape…. An escape is a cure. What does not a man undergo for the sake of a cure?” (p.369) Besides, “to live for a long time in a box, to find air where there is none, to economize his breath for hours, to know how to stifle without dying – this was one of Jean Valjean’s gloomy talents.” (p.369) (Dude, I am so not suited to the life of a convict.)

The plan also calls for Fauchelevent to send his friend the gravedigger off to drink while he “buries” the body, in reality releasing Valjean and sending him off to collect Cosette from the fruit-seller. Finally they iron out all the obstacles. “’That is settled, Father Fauchelevent. All will go well.’ ‘Provided nothing goes wrong,’ thought Fauchelevent. ‘In that case, it would be terrible.’” (p.370) (See, Hugo knows about foreshadowing, too!)

MINOR hiccup: Fauchelevent’s gravedigger friend? Dead. The new guy? Not a drunken sot who can easily be sent off. Or difficultly sent off. No matter what Fauchelevent tries – even offering to buy the drinks himself! – the new guy is going to bury the body before he leaves the cemetery.

So Valjean’s coffin is lowered into the grave. “He had a certain sensation of cold.” (p.375) (Understatement is another literary technique.) He heard the priest and choir boy chanting Latin over his head. He heard a shovelful of dirt hit the coffin lid. And another. And a third. At the fourth: “There are things which are too strong for the strongest man. Jean Valjean lost consciousness.” (p.376)

Finally Fauchelevent hits upon a desperate plan to stop this new gravedigger from burying his pal. There’s a system of cards to do with locking the cemetery gates and the guard and fines, and when he pick-pockets the gravedigger’s card, he’s able to convince him to run home and look for it before he gets fined, offering to bury the coffin himself. The gravedigger gratefully agrees and rushes off, and Fauchelevent hops into the grave to pry up the coffin lid. He freaks the heck out to find Valjean possibly dead, then freaks out again to see Valjean alive. “To see a corpse is alarming, to behold a resurrection is almost as much so.” (p.379)

They get out of the grave, though, and bury the coffin, dropping the gravediggers tools off at his place and letting him know the burial was over and that Fauchelevent had “found” his missing gate-card, so now the gravedigger thinks that Fauchelevent is the best guy ever.

The nuns and religious community also think Fauchelevent is the best guy ever, for putting the dead nun in the crypt. Goodwill just surrounds the guy. His “brother” “Ultime Fauchelevent” becomes his assistant with no problems, Cosette charms the nuns by looking like someone who will grow up to be ugly (apparently nuns love that in a kid – easier to cure them of vanity that way) and she becomes a charity pupil at the convent school. So although “Javert watched the quarter for more than a month,” (p.384) Cosette and Valjean were safely hidden. (There’s lots of sad stuff here about how easy it was for Cosette to keep her secrets from her classmates, because of the awful training in terror and silence via the Thenardiers, yikes. Poor kid.)

It was a little paradise for Valjean. Safety, the garden (he always liked working with crops), Cosette growing and laughing and spending time with him when she wasn’t in school, and a kind of salvation. You see, Valjean had started to forget the lessons of the Bishop with the silver, and to compare his actions with those of man (against whom he tended to look rather saintly) as opposed to comparing them to what God would like (against which he was scraping by.) So he was able to swing back to the side of the angels.

He compared captivity in prison to that in the convent: In prison, “they lived nameless, designated only by numbers, and converted, after a manner, into cipers themselves, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, with shorn heads, beneath the cudgel and in disgrace.” (p.385) The nuns “also lived with shorn heads, with downcast eyes, with lowered voices, not in disgrace, but amid the scoffs of the world, not with their backs bruised with the cudgel, but with their shoulders lacerated with their discipline.” (p.385) “What had those men done? They had stolen, violated, pillaged, murdered, assassinated. They were bandits, counterfeiters, poisoners, incendiaries, murderers, parricides. What had these women done? They had done nothing whatever.” (p.386) It goes on for a while in this vein, but basically: Valjean is moved by the ‘imprisonment’ of the nuns, and the fact that their devout community has allowed him to regain his own faith and communion with God. And, yes, he’s noticed that twice now when he was in his most desperate straits, he was saved by his encounters with religious people.

“Many years passed….” (p.388) and that’s the end of Volume 2: Cosette.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Armchair Audies Category Report: Literary Fiction

Time for me to get all judgemental for the Armchair Audies! Herein is my opinion about the Audies 2013, Literary Fiction category. The nominees are:
(note: if you click the "Read the review" links below, you'll get to a site with a sound sample of the book, too.)

Stephen Harrigan
Read by George Guidall (Recorded Books)
Read the review 

Liz Moore
Read by Kirby Heyborne, Keith Szarabajka(Blackstone Audiobooks)
Read the review 

Hilary Mantel
Read by Simon Vance (Macmillan Audio)
Read the review 

Kazuo Ishiguro
Read by Simon Prebble (Tantor Media)
Read the review 

Graham Greene
Read by Colin Firth (Audible, Inc.)
Read the review 

Last year when I participated in this fun venture for the Teens and Narration by Author categories, I set this as my criteria: The Audies site says only that the awards recognize "distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment," which is a pretty broad basis for judging. Production values, narrative technique, ability to engage the listener, preferably in a way that makes listening to a title even better than reading it would be - it's all part of the package, in my opinion. Balancing that, is just that ephemeral thing: what I like. 

So it's easy for me to say: NOT Remember Ben Clayton. This is the first book in, oh, ages and ages that I haven't finished. I did give it 5 discs (out of 14) before I gave up, so I listened to about as much of Guidall's narration as I did of the shorter books in this category. I can say that I wouldn't have gotten further in the print book - it wasn't the narration that failed. The book is not interesting. It tries, and it fails, to sweep me into a grand historical setting with wars and travel and artists and lonesome cowboys with mysterious kidnapped-by-Comanches pasts. (See, so many elements! And yet they just didn't speak to each other, or to me.) Guidall handled it all just fine, but he never seemed any more enthusiastic about the material than I was, and it was neither distinctive nor entertaining, if I'm using the APA's criteria. 

4th place in this category, but leaps and bounds and tall buildings and maybe a couple of complete cityscapes above the Harrigan is Heft. I definitely enjoyed Moore's tale which gradually - delightfully gradually - pulls together two unlikely recluses. Kel and Arthur are both intriguing characters, and Heyborne and Szarabajka (in particular) bring a lot of life to them. There's something, though, and I'm annoyed with my inability to articulate it, that was just enough 'off' for me about the book that I opted against writing about it at the time I read it. And for months afterwards - even though it was highlighted in my spreadsheet as one that I intended to review. I think it's the fact that I heard so much buzz about Moore's novel, lots of positive noise, so I was expecting to be wowed. I wasn't wowed. I LIKE it. I'd encourage you to pick it up - I know Arthur will stick with you and alter your brainwaves a little - but I wasn't wowed. So as distinctive as Szarabajka was, and as proficient as Heyborne was, they didn't elevate the book beyond the text. I could read this in print and not always have their voices in my head, which I just can't do with the top 3 in this category.

Since I can't decide, and it's my blog and I'll do what I want, I'm declaring a 2nd place tie between The End of the Affair and The Remains of the Day. I reviewed both of these here in March, so I won't rehash too much, but I'll tell you this: YUM! Both of these older books are so well-written, and you should all read them right now. Or better yet, listen to them, because Firth and Prebble both bring such life to their narrations. Distinctive? Check! (I definitely can't read either of these without hearing the narrators' voices in my head.) Entertaining? Double check! (Firth is sneakily calm about the emotions in Greene's novel, and Prebble just revels in the reserve and fish-out-of-waterness of Ishiguro's butler.) These are both real treats to listen to, and I wouldn't have without the Armchair Audies project, so I'm very glad to be able to tell you how great they are.

And that means the winner, by another little hop over a skyscraper, is Bring Up the Bodies. (And I do NOT know what is wrong with me, not to have blathered on and on about Mantel's novels here. I blather on about them elsewhere - both of her Cromwell novels won the Booker, and I was very into them for the past couple Tournament of Books. Somehow I never mentioned them here. So, first of all, such gorgeous language, such complex but fascinating characters with tricks and twists and an amazing grasp of Cromwell's times. Mantel writes the HELL out of her subject, and I will devour the third as eagerly as I did the first two, I'm sure. And as long as Vance is the narrator, I'll devour it via audio, too. He is a magician with this material - and no, I'm not just saying that because of my long-standing devotion to the guy's voice! This narration just proves how right I am to follow Vance from genre to genre - he has that quality that makes the listener eager to hear what else he's done. The voice differentiations here were particularly well-done, each person not only distinct, but perfectly suited to the character. I was distinctively entertained, and 24 hours of listening flew by. This is the clear winner, and I do hope that the APA agrees come awards night.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

By the Witness of the Martyrs

Oh, goodness. Victor Hugo. Les Misérables. Look, man, I get that you have to totally pad out this thing, so that when I read it I can admire all the clever prose and gain historical context and all, but honestly? Two full books about convents? 

Well, I was going to make a separate post for each book, but I just can't do it to you for these two. Sorry, Guiding Principles of the Les Mis Project, you are overridden. 

Houses of God: good.
But not for living in.
Book Sixth - Le Petit-Picpus
Book Seventh - Parenthesis

Plot-wise, nothing happens. There. Done. 

Okay, fine. Rue Petit-Picpus is the location of the mysterious convent on the other side of the wall that Valjean super-humanly scaled with his little charge in order to escape Javert and his minions. They're hiding in the hut of the gardener, who was the same guy that Valjean lifted a cart from long ago, saving his life. (Yes, yes, we covered all that in the last post. I'm just place-holding it because otherwise you'll forget by the time any actual plot happens.)

For whatever reason, though, Hugo sees fit to go into a lot of detail about the convent, the history of convents, worship, etc. (He claims it is "to say, without transgressing the proper bounds, things which story-tellers have never seen, and have, therefore, never described." (p.328) I have my doubts, though. I think he was just stalling.)

So - this convent in particular: super harsh, lots of rigor, no men allowed, Perpetual Adoration. The nuns "make no use of the bath, never light a fire, scourge themselves every Friday, observe the rule of silence..." (p.329) and other such uncomfortable practices. This is a fun bit: "All their teeth are yellow. No tooth-brush ever entered that convent. Brushing one's teeth is at the top of a ladder at whose bottom is the loss of one's soul." (p.330) Nice!

"These nuns are not gay, rosy, and fresh, as the daughters of other orders often are. They are pale and grave. Between 1825 and 1830 three of them went mad." (p.332) So that's clearly a fun place for a school for girls. The pupils were allowed to talk, of course, but they weren't all chitter-chatter, other than the exercise hour when they dashed around giggling and cheering the place up some. There are various anecdotes regarding visiting relatives not being allowed so much as a hand-clasp with the students, the whole 'no nuns ever seen outside the convent' rule, the personalities of the nuns.

Anyway, that's the place. Oh, and there's a good but about of the architecture of the place. And, like, the system of bells that calls everyone because of the not-talking thing. There, you know about this convent now.

But! That's not all! (Well, it's all for Book Sixth. But Book Seventh is here, too.) You see, "This book is a drama, whose leading personage is the Infinite. Man is the second." (p.345) Which is great and all, but now we have to read several pages about the whole concept of convents. (Parenthesis indeed!) And, sure, Hugo gets pretty funny here:

  • "Monastic communities are to the great social community what the mistletoe is to the oak, what the wart is to the human body." (p.346)
  • "Monasticism, such as it existed in Spain, and such as it still exists in Thibet, is a sort of phthisis for civilization. It stops life short. It simply depopulates. Claustration, castration." (p.347)
  • "The obstinacy of antiquated institutions in perpetuating themselves resembles the stubbornness of the rancid perfume which should claim our hair, the pretensions of the spoiled fish which should persist in being eaten, the persecution of the child's garment which should insist on clothing the man, the tenderness of corpses which should return to embrace the living." (p.348)
  • "'Ingrates!' says the garment, 'I protected you in inclement weather. Why will you have nothing to do with me?' 'I have just come from the deep sea,' says the fish. 'I have been a rose,' says the perfume. 'I have loved you,' says the corpse. 'I have civilized you,' says the convent. To this there is but one reply: 'In former days.'" (p.348)
So basically, convents, etc. were fine, once upon a time. But now? Not so much. On the other hand, God? We're good to go. Keep praying. Don't deny Him. ("There is, as we know, a philosophy which denies the infinite. There is also a philosophy, pathologically classified, which denies the sun; this philosophy is called blindness.")

But convents - "A convent is a contradiction. Its object, salvation; its means thereto, sacrifice. The convent is supreme egoism having for its result supreme abnegation.... The taking of the veil or the frock is a suicide paid for with eternity." (In case you were in any doubt as to his opinion.)

So, that's that. Convent: restrictive, unnecessary, possibly full of zombies, but! Talk about secluded. No men except the occasional priest no one looks at, and the gardener who wears a bell to ensure the women don't note him. And, hey, a safe school for little girls, too! I predict Valjean will find this intriguing....

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hot Summer in a Small Town

Juliet in August by Dianne Warren
(Putnam / Tantor Media, 2012)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by Cassandra Campbell)

From Goodreads: "Juliet, Saskatchewan, is a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of town-a dusty oasis on the edge of the Little Snake sand hills. It's easy to believe that nothing of consequence takes place there. But the hills vibrate with life, and the town's heart beats in the rich and overlapping stories of its people: the rancher afraid to accept responsibility for the land his adoptive parents left him; the bank manager grappling with a sudden understanding of his own inadequacy; a shy couple, well beyond middle age, struggling with the recognition of their feelings for each other. And somewhere, lost in the sand, a camel named Antoinette."

This is quiet, introspective, enclosed. And yet expansive and deep and true. Everything takes place in a small town in the Canadian desert of Saskatchewan, where farmers struggle with economics and nature, and townsfolk struggle with economics and business. I didn't suspect, going into it, that I would fall for everyone in Juliet and care so deeply about their moment-to-moment cares. The bank manager had me in tears. I wanted to wrap the rancher on his unexpected horse in a big hug. The mother of six stressed me out with each passing hour of her day. They all just got under my skin, and I kind of love Warren for bringing them to life for my enjoyment.

I'm also glad the Audies brought it to my attention. Although I'm not armchairaudies-ing the Solo Narration - Female category, I checked out that list (and have actually listened to 3 of them now), and was intrigued by this. I'm always up for a Campbell narration, and this is my favorite of the 3 I've heard. (Considering it beats out 2 narrations by Kellgren, to whom I'm devoted, that's saying a lot!) Campbell put me on that horse, and in the diner, and in the car with all those kids, battling a hot day with errands to run and no money to spend on them. I loved how her narrative tone shifted as Warren's focus shifted to another person's story in this book.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How To Charm Mel

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
(Riverhead, 2013 - also Penguin Audio, 2013)
Format: audio CDs via library (narrated by the author)

From Goodreads: "The astonishing and riveting tale of a man’s journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon, it steals its shape from the business self-help books devoured by ambitious youths all over “rising Asia.” It follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else, on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his, their paths crossing and recrossing, a lifelong affair sparked and snuffed and sparked again by the forces that careen their fates along.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a striking slice of contemporary life at a time of crushing upheaval. Romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change."

I've seen Hamid's name bantered about, but this is my first time reading him. Oh, he's a charmer of a writer. This short but expansive novel parodies self-help books with each new chapter, trying to keep the "you" of the supposed audience on track to filthy richness, despite obstacles such as a poor rural childhood, power and gas outages in the burgeoning business, mafia-friendly competitors, corrupt government officials, etc. And most importantly, by keeping "you" away from the alluring "pretty girl" (another very real but nameless character) who keeps popping up and stealing your thoughts from the path to success. It's all fun, and a fantastic depiction of modern life in parts of Asia. 

Hamid narrated the audiobook with great flair and with his tongue firmly in his cheek (as it should be) with the self-help portion of each chapter. His energy didn't flag even when the story did a couple of times (the "pretty girl" was so much more interesting in her teens and middle age than she was in her early adulthood), which kept me engaged. It's only 5 CDs long, so if you're interested in audios but don't want to commit to something that'll take over a month of your commute, this is a good one to check out.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

There, Out in the Darkness, a Fugitive Running

LesMis Project time! Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is still on the hunt for misery. I'm in the middle of Volume 2: Cosette, and I tell ya, that kid is really not out of the woods yet, for all that she's been airlifted out of the Thenardier's lives by Jean Valjean.

Hey, old guy & little gal, I'm just not
sure the cops aren't going to find you.
Book Fifth - For a Black Hunt, a Mute Pack

(That's some serious hunting terminology, which tells you a little about how temporary that temporary refuge of Cosette & Valjean is.)

So, when last we saw them, Valjean & Cosette were living in an obscure rented room on the outskirts of Paris, giving alms to the poor but otherwise trying not to be noticed much. But then one of the regular wretches looked like a certain police inspector from Valjean's past, and then a guy who also seemed particularly Javert-ish moved in down the hall, so Valjean shoved all his cash (except for one coin that fell on the floor and rolled off) into his pocket, gathered Cosette, and headed off into the night.

It was a bright moon, but that's okay: "Jean Valjean could glide along close to the houses on the dark side, and yet keep watch on the light side." (p.306) Not to beat us over the head metaphorically or anything. Poor Cosette just goes along with it all quietly, thanks to having been brought up to obedience no matter how unpleasant the situation. Plus she likes Valjean so if he drags her off for a journey by foot crossing and re-crossing the streets of the city, well, such is life.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times he doubled back and circled round and practiced evasive manoeuvres, Valjean could sense he was being followed. (Apparently 19 or so years in prison makes you fairly attuned to those sorts of things.) He spotted three men a couple of times, and one of them was pretty darn reminiscent of Javert. Finally he got a glimpse of the men in full moonlight, and saw that yes, it was his old nemesis. That meant full-out concerted getting away, carrying Cosette whenever she tired, unfortunately getting a little held up paying a toll over a bridge, but still unable to fully lose his followers. "Jean Valjean shuddered like the wild beast which is recaptured." (p.309) There was little escape - he headed into a quiet street, came up against a Y shaped turning, basically got them trapped in the middle of a labyrinth with a guard stationed at the only opening he could see. "[T]o advance was to fall into this man's hands; to retreat was to fling himself into Javert's arms. Jean Valjean felt himself caught, as in a net, which was slowly contracting; he gazed heavenward in despair." (p.311)

And looking heavenward is, as I'm sure Hugo would like us to realize, generally a good idea:

  • A troop of handily-recruited soldiers started a dark-niche-by-hidden-corner search of the alley down which they hid. "A few minutes only separated Jean Valjean from that terrible precipice which yawned before him for the third time. And the galleys now meant not only the galleys, but Cosette lost to him forever; that is to say, a life resembling the interior of a tomb." (aww!) "There was but one thing which was possible.  Jean Valjean had this peculiarity, that he carried, as one might say, two beggar's pouches: in one he kept his saintly thoughts; in the other the redoubtable talents of a convict. He rummaged in the one or the other, according to circumstances." (p.313)
  • "[T]hanks to his numerous escapes from the prison at Toulon, he was, as it will be remembered, a past master in the incredible art of crawling up without ladder or climbing-irons, by sheer muscular force, by leaning on the nape of his neck, his shoulders, his hips, and his knees, by helping himself on the rare projections of the stone, in the right angle of the wall...." (p.313) (Ouch!)
  • So he checks out the 18-foot wall, the one ledge about 5 feet up, the flat stone on top of the wall. Unfortunately the 8-year-old didn't climb all that well. "Should he abandon her? Jean Valjean did not once think of that. It was impossible to carry her. A man's whole strength is required to carry out these singular ascents. The least burden would disturb his centre of gravity and pull him downwards." (p.313) (I should think so!)
  • Fortunately, there's a rope nearby, used in aid of lighting the street lanterns. He dashes over and fetches it. Cosette is finally starting to get right freaked out, and asks who's out there. " 'Hush!' replied the unhappy man; 'it is Madame Thenardier.' " (p.314) (MEAN! But effective.) So he makes a kind of harness from his cravat and the rope, sticks the rope in his mouth, and in seconds is on top of the wall, then hauls Cosette up to join him, and they're out of sight mere moments before the soldiers rush into that part of the alley. Whew!
They drop to the other side of the wall and find themselves in a big rambling deserted garden with a shed in the corner, to which they retreat. "A man who is fleeing never thinks himself sufficiently hidden." (p.315) They can hear the soldiers searching on the other side of the wall. And then, weirdly, they hear some women singing religious chants somewhere, but they can't see where. It makes them kneel and confuses them. Then everything's quiet.

After a bit of wind but no human sounds, Valjean relaxes enough to notice Cosette's trembling. He asks if she's cold, but she only wants to know if Madame Thenardier is still after them. (Nice parenting skills, man. Way to terrify!) He tells her they're safe, and wraps her in his coat, and goes to scope out their surroundings.

To further the freakishness of the night, he hears a strange bell ringing periodically, and sees that it is accompanied by a light bobbing through the garden. "Where was he? Who could ever have imagined anything like that sort of sepulchre in the midst of Paris! What was this strange house? An edifice full of nocturnal mystery, calling to souls through the darkness with the voices of angels, and when they came, offering them abruptly that terrible vision; promising to open the radiant portals of heaven, and then opening the horrible gates of the tomb!" (p.317)

Cosette, bless her little heart, had crashed out, and now Valjean also had to worry about her dying from exposure. If he didn't get her inside, she might not make it. But it turned out that the bell and light were attached to some sort of man, so he pulled out some cash and bravely went up to him to offer a pile of money in exchange for shelter. And then the man said, essentially, 'oh, hey there, M. Madeline, howzit?' Which REALLY freaked Valjean out. The guy is chatting away, all, 'how'd you end up here, how weird, what's going on?' and finally Valjean asks who on earth he is.

"'Ah! pardieu, this is too much!' exclaimed the old man. 'I am the person for whom you got the place here, and this house is the one where you had me placed. What! You don't recognize me?'" (p.319)

Not the most helpful reply, though funny. A bit of moon hit the old man's face, though, and Valjean realized: it was Fauchelevent. (That would be the guy back in M. sur M. who was about to be crushed under a broken cart until super-strong 'Madeline' got under it and lifted it up, thus outing him to Javert as maybe being that super-strong missing Prisoner 24601.) So Providence is still on Jean Valjean's side, and sent him to the very convent where Fauchelevent was working (and wearing the bell so the women in the convent could avoid his boy cooties.) Because of Valjean's unacceptable gender, Fauchelevent couldn't take them into the convent, but he did put them in his own cottage, where Cosette warmed up and started breathing normally and generally came back from the brink of harm.

Old gardener: "Will you take 20?"
(Once in the gardener's house, "Fauchelevent had removed the bell and kneecap, which now hung on a
nail beside a vintage basket that adorned the wall." (p.321) I giggled a little at the idea of this old gardener going to some flea market in search of chic vintage accessories for his cottage.)

So, now that Valjean & Cosette are at least temporarily safe & warm, we get to find out how Javert got on their scent. When Valjean first escaped:
Looks pretty maelstrom-y to me!

  • "[T]he police had supposed that he had betaken himself to Paris. Paris is a maelstrom where everything is lost, and everything disappears in this belly of the world, as in the belly of the sea. No forest hides a man as does that crowd. Fugitives of every sort know this. They go to Paris as to an abyss; there are gulfs which save. The police know it also, and it is in Paris that they seek what they have lost elsewhere." (p.321)
  • So Javert had relocated to Paris, where the cops found him "useful in divers and, though the word may seem strange for such services, honorable manners." (p.321) Eventually Valjean was recaptured and then reported dead after diving off the Orion, and he wasn't on Javert's radar. "[T]he wolf of to-day causes these dogs who are always on the chase to forget the wolf of yesterday...." (p.321)
  • However, Javert did overhear talk about "the abduction of a child, which had taken place, under peculiar circumstances, as it was said, in the commune of Montfermeil." (p.321) And the child was named Cosette, and was the daughter of a dead woman named Fantine. So that rang a bell or two. Javert headed to Montfermeil, but didn't really get anywhere. (Thenardier had reported the abduction since "the disappearance of the Lark had created a sensation in the village." (p.322) - and way to go, peeps of Montfermeil, letting the poor kid get abused under your noses every day but saying nothing until she disappears. But Thenardier quickly realized that going on about it would mean people asking uncomfortable questions like, 'so how'd you pay off that 1500 franc debt, anyway?' etc., and changed his story to one of the kid going off with her kindly grandfather.)
  • Javert forgot about Valjean again, until he heard about this "mendicant who gives alms" over in Saint-Medard, who was a man of mystery. A man of mystery who lived with an 8-year-old girl from Montfermeil! Interesting.... So Javert switched places with the beggar by the church well (who happened to be a police informant) and waited for the "mendicant" to give him alms. "[T]he shock which Jean Valjean received on recognizing Javert was equal to the one received by Javert when he thought he recognized Jean Valjean." (p.323)
  • He wasn't quite sure - it was a darkish night - "and when in doubt, Javert, the man of scruples, never laid a finger on any one's collar." (p.323) So he followed him home, interrogated the portress, got himself a room, tried unsuccessfully to spy on his new neighbors, but was there when the portress heard that coin rolling across the floor as Valjean packed up to leave. She warned Javert, who hopped to it, and was ready to start following the escapees as they left the hovel. 
He had his crew following, but he didn't tell them exactly what was up - it would be pretty
Note: not historically accurate,
scandal-sheet-wise. But you get
the idea.
embarrassing to be wrong, plus satisfyingly theatrical to be all 'ta da!' at the end of the chase - and since the papers would go to town with a headline like, "COPS TACKLE INNOCENT GRANDDAD OUT FOR A MIDNIGHT STROLL," he had to make sure of his facts.

At one point in the chase, Valjean was lit up in the moonlight, and then Javert was sure of the chase. He wanted no room for error, so he recruited the passing soldiers, and knew - just knew - there was no way 24601 would escape him this time. He ensured that the alley search would be very thorough. Unfortunately, that meant Valjean had time to escape via feats of strength and daring-do. "When [Javert] reached the centre of the web he found the fly no longer there. His exasperation can be imagined." (p.325) To put it mildly, I'm sure.

And thus ends this book. I'm officially 1/3 of the way through this novel, and just over 1/3 of the way through this year. Maybe I'll meet the "read it all in 2013" goal after all! Or maybe my fly will escape, too. Stay tuned!