Sunday, April 28, 2013

How I Read

I read a lot of audio books (which is listening, technically, I suppose), and, while a reader I don’t like probably won’t make me stop reading the book, a reader I like very much can and does enhance my enjoyment. I’ve just finished one such, and am reading another, so it seems like a good time to talk about book narrators. I just finished Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson (the Walt Longmire series). It is produced by the NLS (National Library service) which provides recorded and Braille books for the print impaired (I understand why they use that phrase, but it doesn’t make me like it any better, sigh). Anyway, it’s read by Jim Zeiger, and his voice and reading style is absolutely perfect for this series. He has the Western drawl down pat...the slow, almost lazy way of speaking, touched with a kind of humorous cynicism, as though the speaker takes very little too seriously, especially himself. His interpretation of Walt is so believable that I can’t imagine anyone else having his voice. I’ve never seen the TV series, but I expect I’d have some serious “getting used to” to do. He does just as well with most of the other characters, especially the Native Americans. I’ve listened to other books he has interpreted, and while they were well done, this is the kind of perfect match that makes his performance an integral part of the book for me, and part of what I look forward to when I begin another Longmire book. I’ll have a great deal more to say about this series at some point, because I enjoy it very much. The 2nd book is River of Smoke by Amitav Jhaveri Ghosh read by Sanjiv Jhaveri. This is a commercial audio book which has been produced, with permission, by the NLS. This reader is perfect because of the subject matter, the profusion of dialects and the numerous foreign words and phrases. The reader’s English is impeccable, but I suspect it is either a 2nd language, or, more likely, he is entirely bi-lingual. Whatever the case, it is an absolute joy to listen to his interpretation, because he brings this richly complex book, with its diverse characters from many cultures to vibrant life in a way which nothing else could. I’ve done much of my reading using audio books (which we used to call talking books) for most of my life, so many of the books I love most have a specific voice associated with them. Some of the readers I’m listened to were truly wonderful, and, when I was young, it almost seemed as though the reader had somehow transported him or herself into my room, and was present with me …that, in fact, we were enjoying the book together. In a way, I felt as though I knew some readers, though, of course, I didn’t, and they didn’t even know I existed. Still perhaps, in some way I can neither understand nor explain, there was, and is, a connection between me, the listener, and the reader, if only for the time that I am listening to the book.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Diviners/Libba Bray

The Diviners by Libba Bray ISBN: 9780316126113, Little Brown: NY: 2012 Although this book is classified as YA fiction, I suspect that’s because most of the protagonists are young adults. The thematic material of the book, however, deals more than a little graphically with murder, religious fanaticism and even war. The plot of this book is certainly readable, and there is humor and humanity to balance the violence and horror. While the characters are well drawn, even memorable, the real star of this book is the city of New York in 1926. The 20s are roaring at full force, and the entire city throbs with a sense of liberation and an urgency to embrace life at its best. Young women are shortening their skirts and their hair, and stepping out to taste the delights of jazz clubs, forbidden drinks and romance. Harlem is experiencing a Renaissance of music, writing and art, and its musicians draw all New York to its clubs. The city is so well described that I found myself becoming nostalgic for a place that existed long before I was even born. It teemed with life of all sorts, and it gloried in its energy and brashness. The theater ruled, and the Ziegfeld girls pranced from performance to party, giving little thought to their futures, or to the often less than luxurious circumstances in which they lived. They had what they wanted: They were in New York! Yet, just beneath the surface, a serial killer, who turned out to be much more, produced his own horrific drama, leaving mutilated bodies along the way and preparing, on a supernatural level for something far more devastating. His enemies were few and not quite competent; still, they won, through their persistence and courage. While WWI was long over, it provides a dark undercurrent that threads its way through the story. We are reminded that part of the frenetic activity we see is a reaction to the horror of that war, when almost everyone could count a loved one among the lost. The author’s excellent research and especially her use of period dialog turned this book from a repeat of a fairly often explored theme into something fresh, vibrant and very pleasing. Random Thoughts. I have visited NYC a few times, and while I enjoyed my visits, I was always glad to go home. I don’t have the temperament for its pace or its noise. I think I love the idea of NYC. Its iconic presence is always there and just knowing that orients me in a strange way. It’s a brassy, brash, irreverent place that never sleeps and never gives up or in. The destruction of the Trade Center wounded it, but not for long, and it came back with a shout of defiance, and always will. It seems to contain the world on an island, a place where one can find anything from anywhere.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Le Carre: a romance of words

[Enter Post Title Here] I am not going to discuss a specific book in this post. Instead, I want to talk about one of my favorite authors, John Le Carre. His work is my personal gold standard for stories about espionage and such, and I read a lot of those. I discovered Le Carre’s work in college. I happened to read “A Small Town in Germany”, and I was hooked, for life. I’ve read most, if not all, of his books, and while I prefer his Cold War stories, and will read and reread anything that features George Smiley, I love them all. I find his work deeply satisfying on a number of levels. They are, I suspect, far more realistic about the methods and mindsets of most secret agencies. They don’t depend on either gadgetry or violence; rather, they are stories about people who may or may not be professional spies. There is action, of course, but it is supported by the thoughtful preparation of minutiae and exploration of motivation. When the action scenes do come, they are at the pinnacle of an extremely carefully constructed pyramid, and more effective because of that. By the time the guns come out, we care about the people involved on both sides of the fight, and we understand both the necessity and the tragedy of what happens. For Le Carre, as for George Smiley, violence is the last and least preferable resort. The agents and support staff aren’t super heroes, nor are they ultra beautiful people. They are as flawed and complicated as I, the reader, am; they have warts, they might be dumpy or ungainly, some of them drink far too much, some have obstreperous children that keep threatening to disrupt important meetings, but all of them know what they must do, and do it well. There are, of course, plenty of office politics, and they are, in many ways the same that we, the readers deal with. They are petty and venal, and sometimes they result in unfairness and injustice; but in the end, it is the service that survives. I find Le Carre’s work satisfying intellectually. The gentleman can write! His prose is, in its quiet way, exquisite, and he has drawn word pictures that have stayed in my memory for years. Sometimes I’ll forget exactly in which book a scene occurred, but I acutely remember, for example, George Smiley coming home from one of his rambles and looking up at his bedroom window, only to see his wife Anne, stretching as luxuriously as a well satisfied cat, with her head turned to speak to someone. Each word of that description was calculated to pierce the heart of the reader, so that it was hard not to cry out, with George Smiley “Oh, Anne!” There are many, many such moments in this canon, but talking much about them, out of context, would spoil the joy of discovery when reading the books. I once had the pleasure of listening to an interview with John Le Carre on public radio, and, as part of that interview, he read a bit from his latest book. He reads almost as well as he writes, and, perhaps oddly, the cadence of his words, his tone, his emphases, were exactly the same as I “heard” them in my mind, and had done for 40 years. His writing flows like a quiet, deep river. The rocks, shoals and whirlpools are there, but they always come as a surprise. Suddenly, we are caught up in an implacable current, and we rush from point to point with the characters. Character development is, of course, one of the foundations of good literature, and again, Le Carre excels. His characters are a mix of traits, noble and petty, confident and tortured, each with his or her own demons, and, at least usually, each with redeeming qualities that make them too human to hate entirely. Each of them, in various ways, hold up mirrors in which we can see part of ourselves, and so, we are almost forced, if we want to be honest, to relate to them; and yes, that includes the villains, including Carla and Anne. They interact with us and with the other characters as they must, given who they are, and we end up knowing very well who they are. Like most genre fiction, there are patterns we expect. In some ways, these books can be classified as formulaic …the service must catch a spy, and prevent plots from coming to fruition; yet, within those perimeters, each story is unique, and each book leaves the reader slightly changed, and wanting more by this author. bb

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Grandmother opened the universe of books for me when I was a baby, and it is she I must thank for instilling the love of books and reading into my intellectual and emotional DNA. She read to me as a small child, and taught me to treasure, among other wonders “A Child’s Garden of verses”. It worked so well that, to this day, I give that book as a cradle gift to any dear friends who have babies. But she also used to tell me tales from great literature; at first they would be very simplified, but, as I grew older, she would add details, and then, one day, she would call the librarian at our school and tell her that I was ready to read the book, and the librarian would present me with the first volume. They became close conspirators, though neither of them ever inhibited my own explorations. I inherited another reading preference from my Grandmother, the extreme enjoyment of mysteries. She loved them so much that our family used to tease her about her “gory books”, but I owe her for introducing me to such great authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, and much later, it was my pleasure to return the favor by introducing her to authors she hadn’t found, yet. I did find Sherlock Holmes on my own, and promptly, at the age of 9 or so, feel deeply and helplessly in love! I wasn’t deterred either by time or the fact that Mr. Holmes didn’t exist, save in his stories. A girl does what she has to do, so I read as much of the Canon as I could, and then reread them, several times. I still enjoy them, and yes, he still owns a tiny piece of my heart. I love to read, and I love to talk about what I read, often with delight and excitement, and that’s what I intend to do here. I won’t be writing “reviews” because I’m not a professional reviewer. Instead, I’ll just write about what I’ve read, talk about why I liked it (or didn’t), and often offer some random thoughts suggested by the book. I often find myself following meandering mental trails while reading and I’ll share those, too. What I’d really like to see, though, is chat about books, the thoughts engendered by them, and, always, suggestions for my continental sized TBR list!