Sunday, May 25, 2014

Armchair Audies 2014: Literary Fiction

I'm such a cheater. I committed to judging 3 categories in the Armchair Audies project this year, and judge I will. But this category (LitFic) I'm judging with a bit of an asterisk, given that I didn't actually listen to all of the nominees. But! The discerning Jennifer at Literate Housewife also listened to almost all of them, and we've chatted about them and decided on a winner.

Here are the Audies Literary Fiction nominees:

So - the two I didn't touch were Eleanor Morse's White Dog Fell from the Sky and Stephen Kiernan's The Curiosity (neither of which Jennifer enjoyed enough to want to talk me into listening to them as serious contenders.)

Given that I can't argue otherwise, I suppose that I have to put Meryl Streep's reading of Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary in 4th place. I haven't mentioned it here before, but that's because thinking about it puts me to sleep; listening to it was a struggle to drive safely. I adore Streep as much as the next gal, but this was a dull dull audio, and felt way longer than the three CDs it took to hear.

Of the other three, I enjoyed the novel most but the audio least when it comes to Amy McFadden's reading of Jincy Willet's Amy Falls Down. The novel was funny and smart and wry but McFadden's voice was too young for the titular Amy.

Which leaves us with two Big Books of 2013 - both literally and in how they impacted the literary landscape.

My mom suggested that instead of listening to David Pittu's reading of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I should have read it and I would have liked the Pulitzer Prize winner better. Of course, she hadn't gotten to the end of it herself when she said that. I will note that my post complaining about the novel - especially the ending - has gotten far more hits in the six months since I put it up than anything else in the history of this blog. And I've had tons of conversations on various sites regarding similar complaints. So. It's not just me, is what I'm saying. And Pittu does do a fine job with the material. He portrays the characters consistently and with energy (perhaps more energy than they earn in the text), although he give Boris a semi-Slavic accent that Tartt intended to be semi-Australian instead.

But the multi-cast (Will Patton, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Shepherd, and Clifton Collins, Jr.) reading of Philipp Meyer's The Son was definitely the best audio of this bunch. Although I also had some quibbles with this book, they were a lot more personal than universal. And the audio cast did a lot to keep me engaged with the text even when I was irritable about it. They were true to their characters, fluid, and indefatigable across the long length of the novel. It was a notably good listen, and well worth the nod among this particular batch of nominees. The Armchair Audies vote goes to The Son.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Armchair Audies 2014: Teens

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy YA audiobooks? (That's a rhetorical question. Of course I have.) That's why the Teen category for the Audies is generally full of delights for me. This year was no exception.

The nominees are:

As an Armchair Audies Judge (and total expert, in my own mind) I listened to all of these, and what a pleasure it was. Of course, even without the Audies, I'd have listened to 3 of these - I'm always, always going to listen to Katherine Kellgren's narration of LA Meyers, and given how intensely I loved hearing Code Name Verity, I had no doubts that I'd want to listen to Elizabeth Wein's next in the series, even with different voice talent. And as for Rainbow Rowell's books, well. I've been knows to read first, then listen, and to listen first, then read, but always to devour them in all formats.

So, not surprisingly, given my pre-ordained love of the other authors, the two new-to-me authors had my less-favorite audios in this year's slate. Noah Galvan's reading of Matthew Quick's novel embraces the quirkiness of some of the characters and is sensitive and affecting. W Morgan Sheppard's reading of Tom McNeal's novel showed me his facility with languages and accents and emotional temperature changes. Both were so good in many ways, but they didn't cross the line into exemplary.

Also very very good was Sasha Pick's reading of Elizabeth Wein's novel, fully capturing Rose's bravado and fear and heart, as well as the fragile emotions of her fellow concentration camp internees.

But, come on, it's Katherine Kellgren not only reading LA Meyer, but narrating Jacky's adventures in Spain, with gypsies, with painters, with soldiers. Accents and singing and bull-riding and letters from Jaimy and, honestly, with half a syllable from Kellgren I could tell you whether it's Higgins or Jacky or Goya speaking, which is a remarkable feat - after ten books I feel I know the recurring characters very well, and part of that is due to her portrayal of them.

So that's phenomenal, and y'all should listen to the whole series.

But first, listen to Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra's reading of Rainbow Rowell's novel, because your heart needs it. Your mind needs it. Your sense of nostalgia, and however much of you is a music lover, and a comics nerd, and a kid who once rode the bus; all of those parts of you need it. Lowman in particular basically mind-melded with the text, making Eleanor's portions of the novel intense and painful and beautiful and real. Malhotra is quite the idealized Park voice - so sweet and always with a smile somewhere, even when he is aching. The whole thing is magic, as is the novel, and my world, knowing this book and this audiobook are around. (I rave. So what? It's my blog and I can rave if I want to.)

So the Audie goes to Eleanor & Park. So should you.

Mel Published Elsewhere, Last Reads Edition

I shared my #LastReads thoughts at Land of Lost Books. Fun! 

(This looks like the pretty version of A Tale of Two Cities I picked up at my in-law's house one long summer, and got sucked into love of the novel.)

Writing the post, of course, made me want to revisit the book. I decided to really confuse everyone by listening to the version read by Simon Prebble instead of the one read by Simon Vance. It's also very good! My husband is amused by my plethora of Simons.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Armchair Audies 2014: Narration By Author

I listened, I considered, I posted, I judged. Now I'm gonna give the rundown of who wins (IMO) this year's Audie Award for best Narration by Author or Authors. 

The nominees:

I realize I didn't do a post back in October when I listened to David Rakoff's narration of his Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (Random House Audio/Books on Tape, 2013)
I did review it on Goodreads, though, so I'll reiterate: Lots of fun to listen to Rakoff's narration of his novel. A few of the characters broke free of the rhyme scheme and took on some life, and in general I was delighted and impressed with what he made language do to serve the story and his couplets.

I did write here about the others - Billy Crystal, Shirley Jones, Grace Coddington, Valerie Harper, and Neil Gaiman.

And as I said before - sincerely believing that my bias towards fiction isn't skewing my opinion too much - the celebrity books aren't the winners here. Crystal's is the closest - his narration is funny and fluid, well worth the time. The other three (Coddington in particular) are fine if you were already interested in the subjects, and generally competent, but nothing to go out of your way for.

Rakoff has a deserved sentimental bump here. He read the book in his last days, and that is apparent in his well-trained, familiar, wry voice. It still captivates and it's delightful to let it wash over you. But that wash, combined with the rhyming couplets that lean towards cleverness rather than content, keeps this from being a real story-telling experience.

Gaiman, though, as I noted, is the gold standard of authors narrating their books. He sustains tension and mystery and wonder and pain throughout, entirely transporting the listener to the wonderful world he created.

The two who might wrest it from Gaiman are Crystal because of his celebrity and gift with character voices, or Rakoff because of his tragic early death and beloved but failing voice. But going purely on 'this is the best narration from open to close,' Gaiman should win the Audie.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Teen Books That Make Me Cry

(That's not the fairest of titles, given that a million things make me cry. I'm a cry-reader. Emotions! Bring me all the emotions!)

One of the reasons I picked the Teens category for the Armchair Audies project is that I'd already devoured a few of the titles, and looked forward to a chance to revisit them and discuss them here. Plus, I've done it for the past couple of years, and have predicted correctly each time (it's a tiny triumph, but I like it.) So now I'm going to visit a couple of nominees which are parts of series. Both of these books are wonderful and more than deserve their nominations.
First up is LA Meyer's Viva Jacquelina! (Listen & Live Audio, 2012), narrated by Katherine Kellgren. You may recognize her name because I've mentioned her here more often than almost any other narrator (she might actually - gasp! - beat Simon Vance in the I-just-made-this-up Overreader Tag War by the time these Audies are awarded.) She's consistenly had books in the running for Audies Teen category, and has won, and you can listen to any of Meyer's Bloody Jack series to find out why. For the uninitiated, Mary "Jacky" Faber was a London orphan who dressed like a boy to join the navy and escape street gangs, and who subsequently has sailed around the world making a name (or many names, Jaquelina being the latest of them) as sailor, owner of a shipping line, benefactor of an orphanage, spy, temporary buddy of Napoleon, diver for sunken treasure, stage performer, smuggler of slaves to freedom, and always devoted friend to many world-wide. Her heart belongs to Jaimy Fletcher, but Jaimy's in the Navy, and while he and Jacky often end up in hot water, they are rarely in the same waters. (That's the main reason this book made me cry.) There's adventure and treachery and danger and singing and accents and, in this 10th book in the series, freedom fighters and Goya and the Spanish Inquisition. Kellgren narrates the series with exemplary skill - those many award nominations and wins are beyond justified - and as much as I enjoy the character and series, it's one I would chose never to read in print or with another narrator, because she fully inhabits not just the main characters, but all of the other recurring and occasional people in Jacky's world.

And next is Elizabeth Wein's Rose Under Fire (Bolinda Publishing, 2013), narrated by Sasha Pick. You won't have heard her name from me, because it was new to me, but Elizabeth Wein's certainly wasn't. I still cry (me and the crying) when I just think about Code Name Verity, as you would, too, if you'd read it. (You've read it, right? Because if not you are a foolish human and need to correct that immediately.) (If you have: "Kiss me, Hardy!" There, now you're crying, too.) Verity's Maddie appears in Rose's book (I cried), but mostly this is Rose's story. She's an American pilot working with the British Air Transport Auxiliary. She's flying over France when she's captured and sent to Ravensbrück and has to cope with a world unlike anything she'd ever imagined. Rose is a poet, and so young - she graduated high school early so she could join the war effort - and nights in the concentration camp are nothing like her childhood days in rural Pennsylvania. Friendships in the camp are fraught with treachery and loss and devastation, but are also Rose's salvation. (I cried.) Pick's narration is a little dreamy and very measured and she deals nicely with the multinational accents of Rose's friends. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Still Foolin' Em (insert long subtitle here)

Still Foolin' Em by Billy Crystal
(Macmillan Audio, 2013)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by the author)

From Goodreads: "Billy Crystal is 65, and he's not happy about it. With his trademark wit and heart, he outlines the absurdities and challenges that come with growing old, from insomnia to memory loss to leaving dinners with half your meal on your shirt. In humorous chapters like "Buying the Plot" and "Nodding Off," Crystal not only catalogues his physical gripes, but offers a road map to his 77 million fellow baby boomers who are arriving at this milestone age with him. He also looks back at the most powerful and memorable moments of his long and storied life, from entertaining his relatives as a kid in Long Beach, Long Island, and his years doing stand-up in the Village, up through his legendary stint at Saturday Night Live, When Harry Met Sally, and his long run as host of the Academy Awards. Listeners get a front-row seat to his one-day career with the New York Yankees (he was the first player to ever "test positive for Maalox"), his love affair with Sophia Loren, and his enduring friendships with several of his idols, including Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. He lends a light touch to more serious topics like religion ("the aging friends I know have turned to the Holy Trinity: Advil, bourbon, and Prozac"); grandparenting; and, of course, dentistry. As wise and poignant as they are funny, Crystal's reflections are an unforgettable look at an extraordinary life well lived."

Miracle Max! Harry! Other stuff, too, of course. It's hard not to have a soft spot for Billy Crystal just based on those two roles, both of which I've enjoyed repeatedly, neither of which gets stale. Which is why I was able to grit my teeth through the opening chapters about how being old means [insert jokes about bodily malfunctions, memory loss, and kids these days with their texting here]. Not that they were agonizing or anything, just not terribly funny. He's got great patter and does superb character work and has led an enviable life, but the stand up didn't really work for me. Anyway, that all passes like an old man's gas, and the book moves on to his early years, family, wife and kids, and a career that grew in fits and starts until it was chugging along at quite the clip.

The stories are interesting and reinforce that eternal idea that to make your dreams come true, you have to just keep at them, accepting every opportunity, until it happens (or, I suppose, until the dream changes.) Crystal can tell a story, and does so with humility and poignancy and wit and an expansiveness towards the world. And obviously he has the perfect voice for narrating this book. He does voices some, and keeps the humor up front but settles back real gently when it's time for me to cry.

I've been listening to a lot of Aisha Tyler's Girl on Guy podcast, as well as Julie Klausner's How Was Your Week (both so great, y'all, and fascinating to me because of their up-front and intense interviewing skills as well as the previously-unexplored worlds where they bring me; NSFW), which has led to my hearing a lot of stories of how various comedians in particular get their start. Crystal's origin story predates most of those, and I was so intrigued by his stories of the earlier generation of comedy clubs and late-night tv spots.

This is the last nominee I listened to in the Narration by Author or Authors category for the 2014 Audies. I'll be doing a summary of for the Armchair Audies team soon, but I can assure you that, of the four celebrity memoirs in the category this year, Crystal's is by far the best-told and best-narrated. Even with the prostate jokes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Amy Falls Down

Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willet
(Thomas Dunne / Brilliance Audio, 2013)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by Amy McFadden)

From Goodreads: 'Amy Gallup is an aging novelist and writing instructor living in Escondido, California, with her dog, Alphonse. Since recent unsettling events, she has made some progress. While she still has writer's block, she doesn't suffer from it. She's still a hermit, but she has allowed some of her class members into her life. She is no longer numb, angry, and sardonic: she is merely numb and bemused, which is as close to happy as she plans to get. Amy is calm.

So, when on New Year's morning she shuffles out to her backyard garden to plant a Norfolk pine, she is wholly unprepared for what happens next.

Amy falls down.

A simple accident, as a result of which something happens, and then something else, and then a number of different things, all as unpredictable as an eight-ball break. At first the changes are small, but as these small events carom off one another, Amy's life changes in ways that range from ridiculous to frightening to profound.

This most reluctant of adventurers is dragged and propelled by train, plane, and automobile through an outlandish series of antic media events on her way to becoming--to her horror--a kind of celebrity. And along the way, as the numbness begins to wear off, she comes up against something she has avoided all her life: her future, that "sleeping monster, not to be poked." '

I picked this because it's one of the titles in the Literary Fiction category of the Audies, which is one of the categories I tackled for the Armchair Audies project. Haven't read any Willet before, and definitely enjoyed this title very much. It did start slowly for me. I know it's a follow-up to a previous novel, but the former writing class (the subject of the first novel) took up too much room here. They're fun characters, but not the focus of this novel.

The focus is Amy, who is a grand introvert of a human. She's smart and acerbic and only bothers caring about whatever she wants to care about. Her phobias are right out in front, as is her insular nature and her bemusement at most of what happens from the moment the homeless woman in the ER shows her her own photograph and un-remembered words in the newspaper. Beneath it all is Amy's struggle to deal with the death of her beloved-but-platonic husband, aging, and a world that went and changed rapidly when she wasn't really looking. Her sharpness is her strength, and she is so very strong.

This would have been better as text than audio for me, I think. There were a couple of character voices that fell flat - and unfortunately they were the most frequent ones. Amy's agent was a rasping coughing screech, and while true to the page, it's the kind of thing better imagined than experienced. And Amy herself sounded far too young and engaged to fit the purportedly aging and disconnected character. Amy McFadden is a charming narrator, but not the right voice Amy Gallup.

Monday, May 12, 2014

boy, snow, bird

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
(Riverhead, 2014)
Format: library book

From Goodreads: "In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold."

My favorite 2014 title so far! And another author I'm going to have to library-stalk until I've read everything she's published. I had to poke around a little to find my way in to this book (it starts out a little ethereal even as it describes the grim home life that Boy - her name is Boy - is driven to escape.) But once in, I sank completely and wasn't in the least willing to emerge.

It's fabulous - fabulous in two senses. There is excellence here, and there are fables. The modern Snow White, twisted and turned and then inverted and then played with all silly-like but with the serious intent that makes this a book worth savoring, and thinking about. Boy, Snow, and Bird all have wonderful voices, and Bird in particular sang to me. Her section of the novel wove the others together, reflecting Boy, in particular, back upon herself. It's magic and it's gorgeous and it's all too real.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Everybody Loves Me!

Happy Mother's Day, world. (Or, part of the world where today is Mother's Day - my Irish mother-in-law had her Mother's Day a month or so ago.) 

Because I am a lucky duck, I've been able to coach my younger son's Odyssey of the Mind team for the past 6 school years. Their final competition was last month, and yesterday was our final wrap-up party. For several years, one of the families has hosted the team families for a great afternoon full of Indian food and chatter, and I pass out certificates to each of the boys (every year I coach 7 boys; 5 of them have been the same crew since we started when they were in 3rd grade.) 

And every year I get a plaque. I can't even tell you how much I love these plaques. I can't even tell you why I love the plaques, but I just do. They adorn the wall in my study, and I may or may not stare at them when I'm supposed to be staring at my computer and writing instead. 

This year, since these families are amazing, talented, and kind, they also made me a couple of extremely special gifts. 

There's a photo book, with pictures of the teams over the years, and narrative of their tasks and competitions. They also included a DVD of the performances. I keep re-reading it, delighted with this trip down memory lane and all of the unbearable cuteness of the boys getting taller each year, but no less goofy.

And! A couple of the moms made me a gorgeous quilt from the t-shirts of each of the team's 10 competitions. (Right there in the middle - the red one with the Rubik's Cube and the grey one with PacMan - are the first and the last of the tournaments.) It's so pretty and cozy, and while it's currently draped over the futon in my study, it'll end up being dragged all around the house as I curl under it. (Bonus: I have each of these t-shirts and wear them all the time, so odds are good I'll match my quilt.)

Anyway, I'm feeling incredibly cared for, and mainly privileged to have gotten to spend so much time with this funny, sweet, smart group of boys for several years. My son has lovely friends, and as they enter high school, with so many new interests and activities to fill their time, I'm sure they aren't going to miss Odyssey nearly as much as I'm going to miss coaching them.

Today my husband and sons took me to a delicious Mexican lunch, and the boys gave me a card that made me cry, and also cookies and a muffin and a Kiva gift card and time to chill out and write and read and light-refracting glasses and hugs. So all in all: lucky duck.