Sunday, March 30, 2014

Middlemarch, and Life Therein

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
(Crown / Blackstone Audiobooks, 2014)
Format: audio download via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Kate Reading)

From Goodreads: "Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot s "Middlemarch," regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage, and family, Mead read and reread "Middlemarch." 

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reportage, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, "My Life in Middlemarch" takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece: the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of the author herself, "My Life in Middlemarch" is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us."

I first heard about this book via The Toast (which is a place you should never visit unless you like laughing and thinking and getting sucked into the goodness), and participated in a Middlemarch book club there over the past few months. It wasn't my first read of Middlemarch, and as is so often the case with classics I'm revisiting, I chose an audio format - especially since I found one read by the marvelous Kate Reading, who has never steered me wrong. If you're looking at 32 hours of someone telling you about life in a small English town and humanity and emotions and intelligence and insight and love and loss and dreams and the agonizing failure of those dreams to come true, largely through faults of your own that you'd rather not contemplate the existence of, and Kate Reading is one of the options for hearing those superbly-crafted words (y'all should seriously read Middlemarch, it's amazing), pick her.

So when I saw that Kate Reading was narrating Rebecca Mead's book, I jumped in with a request to get it from Audiobook Jukebox. And they sent it to me, and I listened to 9 1/2 hours of Kate Reading bringing me back to Eliot's world, via Mead's smart, incisive prose, and was happy. Reading brings a fullness to the Eliot quotes, and is lively and engaged as she narrates Mead's observations and anecdotes.

I am a book person. This is apparent to every single person who knows me, even a little bit. And much of why books are essential to me is that reading is a way of reflecting on my own life, my thoughts and opinions and dreams. Take any of the fifty books I've read (or listened to) in 2014 so far, and I will tell you something about it that particularly resonated with me - changed the way I thought, or rang an emotional chord, or helped me articulate a formerly inchoate idea.

Mead takes us through those resonances as she reads Middlemarch, and studies Eliot, and re-reads Middlemarch, and tours through the world Eliot inhabited, and re-reads Middlemarch again. Her journeys through Eliot's landscapes and biography of Eliot's life were absorbing and edifying, but what resonated most with me was Mead's tracing of the impact of the text on her through various life phases. What matters when you read Eliot as a schoolgirl is different than what matters when you read her in college, or once you've gone and settled down with a spouse and kids. At least, for me that's true, and for Mead it is, as well. Dorothea's passion, in particular, looked very different to me when I was a younger woman. (Me to Younger Me: "It's not actually all Casaubon's fault, you know. Or even his and Brooke's. Just FYI.")

I love revisiting a book as full of varied, engaging ideas as Middlemarch to see what new things it holds for me, and Mead shows why that revisiting is not only fun, but is also good for the soul. Her life in Middlemarch is a journey I look forward to taking again.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Far Far Away

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
(Listening Library, 2013)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by W. Morgan Sheppard)

From Goodreads: "It says quite a lot about Jeremy Johnson Johnson that the strangest thing about him isn't even the fact his mother and father both had the same last name. Jeremy once admitted he's able to hear voices, and the townspeople of Never Better have treated him like an outsider since. After his mother left, his father became a recluse, and it's been up to Jeremy to support the family. But it hasn't been up to Jeremy alone. The truth is, Jeremy can hear voices. Or, specifically, one voice: the voice of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the infamous writing duo, The Brothers Grimm.

Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil whispered about in the space between this world and the next. But when the provocative local girl Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy (and his unique abilities), a grim chain of events is put into motion. And as anyone familiar with the Grimm Brothers know, not all fairy tales have happy endings..."

This is nominated in the 2014 Audies Teens category, which I've listened to for the Armchair Audies project. 

Jeremy Johnson Johnson is a bit of a cipher, but that's not going to stop Ginger Boultinghouse (who is a bit of a manic pixie) from working on figuring him out as he works on figuring out how to save his business and his dad and his companion-ghost Jacob Grimm works on figuring out who the Big Bad is in town. (Grimm has other-worldly knowledge that there's some sort of threat to Jeremy out there, but no one knows who that threat is.) Throughout there are allusions to various Grimm tales - children encouraged to look into big ovens, in particular - which are a fun touch. It's not the usual kind of updated fairy tale story - it's a little quirkier and a lot looser.

Mostly I liked it. It's playful and fairly well put together and as long as we can suspend all disbelief about the roles of all kinds of world-saving shenanigans run by teenagers only mildly supervised by a ghost.

Sheppard is a new-to-me narrator and was a fun listen. He makes a good multi-lingual ghost. I liked the gruffness he brought to Grimm and the brightness he brought to Ginger and the touch of menace he dropped throughout the book as our suspicions about who the Big Bad in town would be were shifted throughout the narrative.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
(Hachette Audio, 2013)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by Noah Galvin)

From Goodreads: "How would you spend your birthday if you knew it would be your last?

Eighteen-year-old Leonard Peacock knows exactly what he'll do. He'll say goodbye.

Not to his mum - who he calls Linda because it annoys her - who's moved out and left him to fend for himself. Nor to his former best friend, whose torments have driven him to consider committing the unthinkable. But to his four friends: a Humphrey-Bogart-obsessed neighbour, a teenage violin virtuoso, a pastor's daughter and a teacher.

Most of the time, Leonard believes he's weird and sad but these friends have made him think that maybe he's not. He wants to thank them, and say goodbye."

This is a mostly lovely book I wouldn't have run across without the Audies awards. (Hey, guess what? I'm participating in the Armchair Audies again this year! It's so much fun for me.) (I'm going to listen to Literary Fiction, Narration by the Author or Authors, and Teens.)

So, Leonard Peacock is going to kill his former best friend, and then himself, on his 18th birthday. (This is well-established from the start; no spoilers.) There's some bad history there, which is especially difficult for a loner like Leonard (abandoned by both parents, though his mother stops by the suburbs sometimes from her far more glamorous life in Manhattan.) Before he goes, he brings gifts to the four people who have made life bearable for him, and each of those encounters reveals a bit more of how Leonard got to this desperate point.

The novel is gracefully structured and the four lifelines, while perhaps a tad over-eccentric as a whole, were fun characters to explore, especially in audio. Noah Galvin has fun with the Bogart-quoting old man, in particular, and the anti-"parking" comic handed out by the born-again pastor's daughter. (Leonard's relationship to that daughter was the most difficult part of the book for me. Perhaps it is just entirely true to the teenage-boy-ness of Leonard, but his aggressive refusal to take 'no, not interested' from the girl because his libido overrode him took me out of the story and removed a lot of good-will and sympathy towards Leonard I had built up.)

The sensitivity and emotion of Galvan's reading was often very affecting, and I was glad to spend several hours in the company of this particular smart, out-of-place, damaged teen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Do or Die

Do or Die by Suzanne Brockmann
(Blackstone Audio, 2014)
Format: audio download via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Patrick Lawlor and Melanie Ewbank)

From Goodreads: "Former Navy SEAL Ian Dunn has been tasked by a mysterious government agency with rescuing two children believed to have been taken prisoner in a South American embassy. Leading the mission alongside Phoebe Kruger, the new hire at the prestigious law firm where Dunn is a client, Dunn will embark on a race against time while simultaneously dealing with an equally pressing danger: being hunted by the mob. In the midst of all this, Phoebe gets sucked deeper and deeper into Dunn's clandestine world, and Dunn faces some surprises of his own as he slowly becomes aware of Phoebe's sharp intelligence, keen sense of humor, and generous heart."

One of these days, I'll meet Suzanne Brockmann and be surprised when Patrick Lawlor's voice doesn't come out of her mouth. Her audio team is so strong and adept with each of her books that their tones are inextricably linked to her stories, in my mind. And that's all to the good; Brockmann in audio is consistently delightful. The stories are tense and the situations dire and the characters sharp and snarky and crude and sexy and fierce, and it's all just great fun. 

This is a new series, Reluctant Heroes, which is an offshoot of the Troubleshooter series. So Jules Cassidy is somewhere in the background (which is better than not having Jules Cassidy mentioned at all, but I still missed him), and we get to spend time with some others who were secondary but who are coming to the forefront now (Yoshi! Martell!) It's nicely woven into Brockmann's world, and full of her usual energy. The complexities of the local mafia and international baddies was maybe more expansive than necessary for this particular novel, but I'm presuming that the series as a whole will make good use of the elements Brockmann set into play here.

Lawlor and Ewbank are, as always, great at the tension (and not just the sexual tension) and emotion of the narrative. Picking up one of their audios is pretty much a guaranteed several hours (in this case, 19 1/2 hours) of good listening. If you enjoy Brockmann (and why wouldn't you?), you'll really enjoy this audiobook.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
(Viking / Blackstone Audio, 2013)
Format: audio CDs via library (narrated by Juliet Stevenson)

From Goodreads: "Spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this enthralling story follows the fortunes of the Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman who makes a fortune in the South American quinine trade. Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma, becomes a botanist of considerable gifts. As her research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, who draws her into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist, Ambrose a utopian artist, but they are united by a need to understand the workings of the world and the mechanisms behind all life." 

So I went into this with not the highest expectations, and without knowing much about it other than some positive comments from people I trusted who (like me) didn't particularly like Eat, Pray, Love

Henry Whittaker’s adventures quickly captivated me; he’s a brash and shameless egoist whose ambition is more than enough to drive him to all the fame and fortune he craves. I wish the force of his personality had been used to greater effect after his daughter Alma grew up; suddenly he becomes someone who needs managing and coddling, a transition that doesn’t really honor the Henry we watched grow from a thieving London gardener to the richest man in Philadelphia.

It does, however, work as far as turning Henry and his vast empire into an albatross around Alma’s neck. One of her several albatrosses, as it turns out, since she is also burdened, she feels, by her size and appearance, her unusually inquisitive brain, and the Dutch reserve instilled by her austere mother. Alma is a very hungry caterpillar of a child, absorbing everything around her, but she spends the majority of her narrative in her cocoon, struggling to burst forth. It makes for some really intense drama, as Alma’s longings, large and small, fail to be realized.

And then the intense, talented, odd Ambrose Pike shows up, and Alma emerges from her cocoon, but not as the magnificent butterfly she’d imagined. At least she can fly, though, and this third part of Alma’s life is less intense but ultimately more satisfying to her as a person.

(I do realize that since Alma and her father are botanists, I should have framed this whole thing in terms of a plant growing then flowering, but then I’d have to get into a whole plot-spoilery thing about pollination, and no one wants that.)

Here’s the very weird thing about this novel. I definitely enjoyed it; I wanted to be right there as Henry grew his empire and as Alma bloomed (there, I did it), and I had physical reactions to the emotions happening (achy heart, gasps, etc.) It was intense, and took place in a great world – all the plants, all the parts of the world, all the science and brainy people. But once it was over, I was gone. It didn’t stick; it didn’t plant a seed in my soul. (I will stop with that now. Probably.)

Juliet Stevenson’s reading is impressive. She conveyed Alma’s joys and shames and obtuseness and sharpness with pitch-perfect tones. It’s a long, long narration (18 CDs) and I know from other lengthy audiobooks that there’s a tendency to lag or lose the flavor of the text with long projects, but Stevenson was present for the whole thing. (This isn’t a surprise, given some of the hefty classics she’s narrated so beautifully, but it’s still a delight.) I’m cautious about listening to more literary works (instead of reading them) because I don’t want to risk losing touch with the text, but Stevenson is so reliably accessible and emotive that I blindly trust her to interpret whatever she’s reading. That trust was rewarded again here.