Saturday, October 31, 2009

122 (2009 #47). The Photograph

by Penelope Lively

More character-driven than plot-driven, this is the sad story of a widower (Glyn) who finds a photograph of his late wife (Kath) surreptitiously holding hands with her sister's (Elaine) husband (Nick), taken by the latter's former business partner (Oliver). Kath's friend Mary is also in the photo, and Glyn proceeds to interrogate all of them to find out if there had been other affairs. The story is told from all these multiple viewpoints, including that of Nick and Elaine's daughter Polly, a favorite of Kath's. We learn a lot about all the narrators (including some of the minutiae of their daily lives - Glyn is a landscape archaeologist and Elaine is a garden designer), but Kath remains an enigma. How she died isn't revealed until near the end, but there are indications all along.

The story is set in England, with British vocabulary, so it's only fitting that the audiobook narrators be British. Actor Daniel Gerroll is, but his wife, actress Patricia Kalember (of Thirtysomething and Sisters TV fame), is American. Both do a fine job creating distinct personalities for the various narrators.

The book's title intrigued me, although the audiobook cover art is misleading (an attempt to portray the photo that's so central to the story seems like the better choice to me). All in all, though, I was disappointed. Very little happens in the story, and the characters are so self-absorbed, it's hard to empathize with any of them. It's no wonder they knew so little about Kath.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

121 (2009 #46). The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This story occurs in Barcelona and begins in the summer of 1945 when motherless Daniel Sempere is ten years old. His father, an antiquarian bookseller, takes him to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge secret library where "every book, every volume you see here, has a soul...of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens...In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands....According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive." (pages 5-6)

The book that calls to Daniel is "The Shadow of the Wind," by one Julian Carax. After reading it in one night, Daniel tries to find other books by Carax. Daniel learns that the book is quite valuable as all of the other copies, and everything else Carax has written, have been destroyed. Over the next ten years, Daniel is consumed by a compulsion to find the mysterious author and solve the puzzle of what happened to him and his books. Daniel himself describes his quest (page 178) as “about accursed books, about the man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It’s a story of love, of hatred and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.” (And his girlfriend Beatriz teasingly responds, “You talk like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel.”)

This makes for an incredibly riveting story, full of convolutions and surprises. There are complicated characters and lush language is used to describe Gothic settings and evoke dark moods. Originally written in Spanish by Zafon, translator Lucia Graves did an excellent job. I also love this cover design. Recommended for a fun yet intriguing read, particularly for bibliophiles.

ETA: I listened to the audiobook in June-July 2010 and it is fabulous! Jonathan Davis does a marvelous job as narrator, particularly voicing the incomparable Fermin. The audiobook is enhanced by musical interludes, mostly piano at key points (only once was it jarring), which were composed by author Zafon.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

120 (2009 #45). When You Are Engulfed in Flames

written and performed by David Sedaris

This is my fourth Sedaris audiobook. I liked this 2009 Audie Award winner (for narration by an author) better than Holiday on Ice, but not as much as Me Talk Pretty One Day or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

I thought the cover art was some modern graphic design, but it’s actually Van Gogh’s Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette. It’s reflective of some of the themes (smoking, death) and stories in this book, particularly “Momento Mori,” a live performance about Sedaris’ attempt to buy a skeleton in France as a gift for his partner Hugh. The last two discs (out of eight) are all one long essay, "The Smoking Section," about Sedaris quitting smoking at the same time he and Hugh make a three-month trip to Japan. The stories in this essay about Sedaris taking Japanese language classes felt repetitive of similar stories about taking French in France in Me Talk Pretty One Day. The title of the book comes from this essay - about instructions in a Japanese hotel room telling guest what to do in emergencies - one of the sections being titled "When You Are Engulfed in Flames."

The travel theme also runs throughout the audiobook, with one of the funniest stories being another live recording, “Solutions to Saturday’s Puzzle.” This is about Sedaris accidentally sneezing a throat lozenge into the lap of a plane seatmate whose husband he refused to exchange seats with, because he didn't want to sit in the bulkhead. He begins filling in his crossword puzzle with words of unspoken response to this crabby woman, whether they fit the clues or not.

His mother's death from lung cancer after years of smoking is also an undercurrent, but there is less of Sedaris’ family of origin in this book as compared to the other ones. Sedaris is apparently about my age, as he says he'll be 68 in 2025 as I will, and his themes seem to be getting more mature. However, this audiobook is definitely not for prudes – there is sex and lots of foul language. Good sound effects (especially for smoking - matches striking, paper burning, etc.) and acoustic bass interludes performed by Tommy Harron intersperse the essays."In the Waiting Room" and "Town and Country" are also performed live, which is David Sedaris at his best.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

119 (2009 #44). Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

by Lewis Carroll
read by Shelly Frasier


I’m embarrassed to say, after reading Alice I Have Been, about the girl who inspired the Alice in Wonderland books, that I’d never read this Lewis Carroll classic, only seen the Disney movie like so many of my generation. I found this unabridged audiobook at the local public library and thought I should listen. It’s literary nonsense and rather hard to believe it was originally meant for children, as I think some of the word play would go right over their heads. For example, I loved the Mock Turtle’s and Gryphon’s puns on traditional courses of study in the Victorian era:
Reeling and Writhing,...and then the different branches of Arithmetic –Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision....Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography;...the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel...he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting with Coils....the Classical master...was an old crab, he was....He taught Laughing and Grief,
which of course were reading, writing, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, history, geography, drawing, sketching, painting with oils, Latin and Greek. But would the average child get that?

Indeed, an anonymous review in The Athenaeum of December 16, 1865 (page 844) said,
This is a dream story, but who can in cold blood manufacture a dream, with all its loops and ties, and loose threads and entanglements and inconsistencies, and passages which lead to nothing, at the end of which Sleep’s diligent pilgrim never arrives? Mr. Carroll has labored hard to heap together strange adventures and heterogeneous combinations, and we acknowledge the hard labor....We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story.

Yet I remember loving the movie, and I think it was because Technicolor made the absurdities more “real.” In this case the story does suffer from being an audiobook without illustrations. Shelly Frasier does British accents rather well, but her voices for many of the characters sound too similar.

118 (2009 #43). Alice I Have Been

by Melanie Benjamin

This advance reading copy (scheduled to be published in January 2010) is fascinating historical fiction / biographical novel about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice was 20 years younger than Carroll, and just a child when they met. He photographed her and her sisters numerous times and took them on picnics. A story he told them on one of these outings in 1862 was supposedly the idea for Alice in Wonderland. About a year later, something happened that resulted in a break between Carroll and the Liddell family; Alice’s mother burned all of Alice’s letters from Carroll and the pages were cut from Carroll’s diary that apparently covered the incident. There have been a number of theories and speculation on just what was on those cut diary pages, some of which support and some of which debunk the so-called “Carroll Myth” about his possible pedophilia.

Melanie Benjamin’s debut novel made me want to read more about both Liddell and Carroll, which for me means the book is a successful example of its genre. There’s just enough real-life mystery in the relationship between Liddell and Carroll to make excellent fiction, yet the story is well grounded in the available facts. I highly recommend this well-written, well-researched novel.