New York, NY, United States
We don't know why Kurt Vonnegut chose to leave these stories (and one essay) unpublished during his lifetime. The facile explanation is that he didn't think they were good enough to publish. Some reviewers have dismissed them based on that assumption.
But we also don't know when Vonnegut wrote them (the essay was written in 1992). We know he gave up on the short story as a literary form quite some time ago, so we can surmise that these are from the same era as those found in the two collections published while he was alive.
We also know that three of the stories in Bagombo Snuff Box were rewritten by Vonnegut for its 1999 publication because he was dissatisfied with them, even though they had already been published elsewhere. The stories in Sucker's Portfolio were never published. Maybe they were rejected, maybe Vonnegut didn't even submit them, maybe he was still working on them, even though all but one are complete as is.
But I can't dismiss them out of hand based solely on the fact that they were never published before. That's because there is some good stuff here -- there is only one story that I didn't like and didn't get at all. But the stories are uneven, some more so than others. They are also too O Henrian, clearly crafted to set up the ironic final reveal, which harks back to Vonnegut's explanation of why he gave up on the form, because it was "too cute".
The bottom line: if you haven't already read all of Vonnegut's novels -- especially his first seven novels -- and the Welcome to the Monkey House collection of stories, that's where you should be going right now. But if you're a completist like me who has already read everything else, there is definitely enough here to keep you interested.
Unfortunately, the narration doesn't enhance the experience. Especially the voices -- most especially the female voices, who all come off with the same mousy, scared tone that is borderline offensive.
After listening to The Serpent of Venice, Chris Moore's latest, I decided to go back and listen to Fool first chance I got, having read it several years ago in print. Sure enough, it turned up in Audible's recent BOGO sale of listener favorites, as it is, as advertised, a listener favorite.
Fool was Moore's first try at turning a Shakespearean tragedy into a comedy, taking the story of King Lear and telling it from the point of view of Lear's fool (jester), Pocket. With the witches from Macbeth thrown in for good measure, and of course there's always a ghost, Moore sends up Lear through the use of language -- sarcasm, pun, straight out joke, mixing Shakespearean English with modern English slang to great comic effect.
Whether you're a Shakespeare fan, or a Shakespeare contratrian like me, or never even heard of the bloody bard, Fool will tickle your funny bone with Pocket's unfailing ability to cleverly turn of phrase. Euan Morton, who has narrated Moore's last two novels, including Serpent of Venice, does his best work here, not going overboard with some characters as he does in the recent Pocket sequel.
(For anyone who doesn't get the title of my review: "More fool you" is a phrase from Taming of the Shrew, meaning you're more of a fool than I thought. "More Fool Me" is a variation on that phrase that was used as the title of a Genesis song back in the 70s, sung by Phil Collins during the time when Peter Gabriel was still the lead singer. I added a second O to pun the author's name, in addition to the double entendre -- if I may use a phrase from effing French -- of the fool me part.)
Tommy Rotten. That's what his mother called him -- half affectionately and half truthfully -- when he was a kid in rural North Carolina during the Great Depression. And gonzo novelist Tom Robbins certainly made a lifelong effort to live up to his childhood nickname -- not literally rotten, but affectionately, iconoclastically rotten. And while living the life of Tommy Rotten, Robbins (amazingly) started writing at an early age and pursued a career as a writer (journalist) from the start.
If you like the novels of Tom Robbins, you will love his "this is not my memoir" memoir. Recounting anecdotes from his colorful life, Robbins clues his readers into the currents and events that shaped his life and career, ultimately as a beloved author. Hed does so in a format that falls outside the bounds of a conventional memoir or autobiography, in the same way he had consciously set about breaking the bounds of the traditional novel when he wrote his first book, the legendary Another Roadside Attraction (Audible, PLEASE come out with an audio version of ARA ASAP!).
The biographical details are welcome, often juicy. But what his fandom will appreciate most are a) the background on how his novels came to be written and published and popular, and b) his boundless talent for stringing words into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Many of his anecdotes are structured to set up a punch line, and while some of those punches miss the mark, his use of language is always awe-inspiring (and to a wannabe writer like me, the cause of endless envy).
Keith Szarabajka sounds so much like Robbins, he is the perfect narrator. He is one of those actors whose face you recognize from all of his character roles in TV shows and movies, and he is a prolific voice actor whose voice you recognize more than his tongue twister of a name. He also read the audio version of one of Robbins's novels, among his dozens of audiobook credits. Would love to hear him do ARA (hint hint, Audible!).
I was thoroughly enjoying this book until, halfway through, the narrator, Hassan, makes the title journey, crossing the road from his family's Indian restaurant to apprentice in Madame Mallory's classic French restaurant. To that point, the focus is, quite entertainingly, on his family, their journey from Mumbai to London to rural France, and the food businesses they create along the way. The battles they fight to protect their restaurants, first in India and then in France, come to life-changing climaxes.
Then Hassan makes the hundred foot journey across the street to Mallory's place. The focus shifts to French cuisine, and nothing much happens over the last three and a half hours. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm guessing those last few hours are condensed into a five- or ten-minute prologue and/or epilogue, serving perhaps as a framing device for the interesting portions that make up the first half of the book.
There are other narrative problems as well. The timeline is inconsistent, off. The climactic events of the first half are hardly mentioned again, at least not to the level of significance they should hold. And the many, many descriptions of food and how it's prepared rarely act as metaphors for the characters or the transformations they (should) be going through. It's as if the story supports the author's desire to show off his knowledge of food preparation and recipes rather than the other way around, which is what you'd expect in a literary novel.
The narration is great (except for Madame Mallory's voice). There are several genres that I find especially appealing in audio format, and I am adding novels about India, after listening to this as well as Q&A (aka Slumdog Millionaire) and A Son of the Circus. Neil Shah, who I believe speaks naturally in an American accent, uses an accent that is part Indian and part English, both on the mild side, to read this book, and I found it quite smooth. But it's not the accent that makes it work, it's the narrative style that these books share.
Maybe I loved the first half of the book because of all the Indian food. When people ask me my favorite food, I say Indian. My last meal request will be Murgha Tikka Masala (murgha is chicken) and as many loaves of naan as I can eat. I've had fantastic Indian food in a number of places where there are strong Indian communities -- India, of course, and 6th Street in the East Village, where I lived for 15 years (Mitiali was my usual haunt), and the U.K. and Fiji and Singapore. Maybe I didn't like the second half of the book because I don't care for offal as much as the French do in their haute cuisine.
Either way, the answer to the question -- Why did the murgha cross the road? -- is: to become a turkey.
This is the book that turned me on to Jonathan Tropper several years ago. I've since read all of his work in print, re-read several on Audible. With the movie version due in September, and with This Is Where I Leave You showing up in a recent BOGO sale, I leaped at the chance to re-read one of my all time favorites in audio. So it is now one my all time favorites in audio.
Judd Foxman recently caught his wife sleeping with his boss, so he is loveless, homeless, jobless, broke, and on the verge of divorce (cuckolded, as he says repeatedly). Then his father dies. He and his family have to sit shiva in his parents' suburban home, receiving visitors while revisiting every aspect of their past and determining the course of their future. Similar structure to all of Tropper's books, but each one somehow remains fresh, and this is one of the funniest of them all.
The cast of the upcoming movie is killer. Jason Bateman as Judd, Tina Fey as his sister, Jane Fonda as his mother, Adam Driver from Girls as his funnier brother, Corey Stoll from House of Cards as his serious brother, Dax Shephard from Parenthood as his donkey-hole boss, Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, Ben Schwartz from House of Lies and Parks & Rec, Abigail Spencer from Suits, Tim Olyphant from Justified, and the underrated Kathryn Hahn who was hilarious in We're the Millers. Although Ramon de Ocampo doesn't do voices, he nails the passive aggressiveness of the Foxmans with his deadpan reading, and I could hear each of the actors delivering these lines in the movie.
Whether you've read it already or not, read it in advance of the movie, or read it afterwards, you will not be disappointed.
As an adult listening to a middle grade book, what I like best about Mudville are its variety of themes, the complexity of its main characters, and the messages it offers young readers. The plot is built upon a baseball showdown between Moundville (Mudville) and a rival neighboring town, but woven into that are themes of friendship, family, loyalty, dedication, selflessness, defining moments, first crushes, and even some issues of race relations.
Baseball always makes for a good metaphor, and Mudville proves to be no exception, to its credit even using the statistical aspect of baseball as a recurring metaphor. Well written, well thought out, and surprisingly complex (but not too complex) for its target audience.
I would not believe anyone who read this book and chose any character other than Sturgis as a favorite. Sure, the narrator, whose father takes Sturgis in as a foster son, is as likeable as he is omnipresent. But Sturgis is the focal point for the complexities of character and plot that make Mudville work. He may be annoying, his story arc may take a strange turn toward the end, but he is without doubt the most interesting character.
I'm going to blame the director rather than the performer for the problems with the way this book is read. Randy Anderson is good for the majority of the time, when he is the voice of Roy, whether it's his voice as narrator or in dialogue. Most of the other voices, however, are so awful that the book was almost unlistenable until I started to get used to them, or to at least expect them when I saw them coming.
Roy's father and mother and the girl he's crushing on are all given unfortunate voices, as are many other characters. But Sturgis, especially because he is so central to the story, is way too far over the top. Roy's voice is almost sotto voce, Sturgis is practically shouting at every turn (speaking in caps lock, as he does when he writes on the internet). It's jarring -- in a car, it is impossible to listen to, having to choose between not hearing Roy or having Sturgis make you jump out of your seat every time he talks.
Wanted to, but was unable to. I started listening to it in the car on a long trip with my daughter, who is sports nut and only a year or so past Mudville's target age. It was the right length to start and finish on that ride. We turned it off after half an hour because of the difficulty of hearing Roy and the annoyance of Sturgis and the other voices. I finished listening to it on my own on my cell phone, the sound easier to control through earbuds. Still, it was impossible to listen to except in small doses because of the way it was read.
Group therapy as a device to develop character is certainly nothing new in movies, books, TV. Gregg Hurwitz in my mind takes a risk using it as the fulcrum for his serial killer thriller, the format having previously been mined so deeply. But his group therapy sessions are the best part of this book. Indeed, through the first few hours, I was ready to complain that there weren't enough group sessions, but that was not at all the case by the end.
What makes it work so well is that Hurwitz's main character, the therapist, suspects someone in the group of being the killer, but for reasons I will not divulge, he has to conduct his sessions as if nothing is afoot, as if he is only delving into their psyche as he was before the killings began. The reason why this works so well is that it allows Hurwitz to focus more on character development than plot, and that is almost always a difference maker in literature.
Rather than compare Tell No Lies to books that center on group therapy, I will compare it to another serial killer thriller I read (listened to) recently, Blood Work by Michael Connelly. But I can't tell you why -- although if you read Blood Work, you can probably surmise why I chose it just because I chose it. But that's only an implicit spoiler for the first major reveal -- there are other nice twists to come.
Impossible to choose, for the reason already stated as to why I liked this book in the first place -- all the group therapy characters are good. They work in concert as a group in elevating the narration, as well as the writing. The one thing I will add about this latest of many Scott Brick performances is that he doesn't do the one thing I don't like him doing -- he doesn't read too slowly. I still listened to parts of the book at 1.25 or 1.5 speed because he is nevertheless deliberate in his pace, but he doesn't get overly ponderous in tone at all.
As much as I liked it, I went four stars instead of five because my initial (educated) guess as to motive and perp turned out to be right, from the very moment I heard the motive and perp first mentioned. It was somewhat telegraphed, especially the motive, although Hurwitz does throw us for a loop when it comes to perpetrator (which I will not hint at beyond that).
I've now listened to all four John Scalzi novels narrated by Wil Wheaton. But this is the first one I've listened to after reading the print edition. I would rate the print edition exactly the same way -- four stars for a humorous science fiction tale that hits a number of bulls-eyes, starting with the fun and funny standard that I apply to these kinds of novels.
But the audio edition is indeed better. And that's because of Wil Wheaton's narration. This type of book is by definition going to be better in audio if the narrator gets his comic timing down, and Wil Wheaton never fails to deliver. I look forward to the upcoming release, in audio, of the next Scalzi-Wheaton collaboration.
What I like best is that it's fun and funny. But to dig a little deeper, what I like best is the way Scalzi transposes present-day Washingtonian politics, world diplomacy, crackpot religion, and hacker technology into a future where Earth is a version of the U.S. that exists in an interplanetary setting filled with extraterrestrial cultures. It provides a recognizable context to that future, while at the same time using that imagined future to comment comically on our current way of doing things.
I especially like the sections where Scalzi explains what things are like in the future and how they got that way -- how Creek sets up his intelligent agent computer system, how the Nidu and UNE stack up militarily, how the Scientology-like Church of the Evolved Lamb came into being. That's where Sclazi gets to be at his funniest and where Wheaton's narration works best.
But for specific scenes, there is the mall chase, the battle simulation, the cruise ship escape, the denouement at the Nidu coronation ceremony where everything is resolved -- but the best scene by a country mile is the opening scene were a mid-level UNE trade negotiator enrages an extraterrestrial diplomat via flatulence. Hilarious!
Although the title is a direct nod to P.K. Dick's best known book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the movie Blade Runner), and there is one mention of it again within the book, the story otherwise had nothing whatsoever to do with PKD or his novel. If that's what you're looking for, it's not here, not beyond the hommage in the title.
As I revisit some of the landmark works from my younger days, in literature, film, music, whatever, I discover that some remain as fresh as ever, the very definition of classic, while others do not withstand the test of time -- time may have passed them by, or maybe so much time has passed me by that I am no longer able to see in them what I saw back then.
Ragtime holds its own forty years later. I read the book when it was originally published, found the movie version just OK, and stayed away from the musical version because I stay away from all musicals as much as possible. I had no particular plans to re-read it, but being immersed this past year in the world of audiobooks, I could not resist listening to it because of one reason -- E.L. Doctorow himself is the narrator.
It's just about a truism that one will always get more out of a book when an author reads his own work. But this is a step beyond. Ragtime was hailed, rightly so, for its lyrical writing style, so hearing Doctorow read it in (what I assume) is the way he wrote it, that's a real treat. Surprisingly, after quoting Scott Joplin in his epigraph, saying that ragtime is meant to be played slowly, Doctorow narrates rather quickly, but this is no complaint -- the pace is perfect.
Ragtime music is noted for is syncopated rhythm. Doctorow clearly was inspired to apply that syncopated style to what would normally be called historical fiction, although that term does not do him enough justice. He masterfully interweaves the tales of three fictional families with a stream of true historical characters from the early years of the 20th century, taking on issues of social, racial, and economic justice that still resonate today, and the rhythm is perfectly timed.
Many works of historical fiction are described using a visual metaphor -- as tapestries. Ragtime is all of that, but it also appeals your another sense, with the musical metaphor of the title.
Charming Vampire Comedy.
Jodie, an average San Francisco woman, gets turned into a vampire. She meets Tommy, a geek writer wannabe from Indiana, and they fall in love. At the same time, they are trying to locate the ancient vampire who turned Jodie and who is committing a series of murders that he seems to be laying upon the unlikely young lovers. It's humorous, it's charming, and it's about vampires.
I don't like vampires. I just never saw the point of it. Especially the seemingly neverending fixation with them in popular culture. I always associated vampire myths with antisemitism, knowing that the hysteria of the 19th century coincided exactly with the rise of antisemitism and echoed the worst anitsemitic belief, the blood libel. Any lingering doubts I may have had were quelled thirty years ago when I saw the original Nosferatu, made in 1922 in Germany. And still the parade of vampire fiction continues unabated.
Nevertheless, among the ceaseless flow, I took to True Blood, the TV show. I am a huge fan of Alan Ball and I liked the metaphor of vampires as gay culture in the context of its time. Similarly, I knew I would eventually have to read the vampire series written by one of my favorite authors, Chris Moore, although I left it for last after plowing through the rest of this back catalog. When Bloodsucking Fiends, the first in the series, showed up as an Audible Daily Deal, I knew the time had come to take the plunge.
And I liked it, despite it being about vampires, and for the same reason I like the TV version of the books it can be most compared to, the Sookie Stackhouse series that forms the basis for True Blood (even though Fiends predates Sookie by a number of years). Moore doesn't broach the gay metaphor, but he too places his vampires in contemporary society, in San Francisco, stays true to the reality of his setting despite the presence of supernatural beings (as he always does), and presents us with a book of charm and wit, tangentially tackling modern issues, like euthanasia. And he leaves out the gore, diverting from the True Blood comparison.
I have not listened to Susan Bennett before, but I guess I will again, since she narrates Moore's other two vampire books, Bite Me and You Suck (she also has narrated Charlaine Harris's most recent book that includes a vampire, though not in the Sookie series). Bennett does a good job, especially with the two main characters, Jodie and Tommy.
What makes this book stand out among similarly themed novels is the structure -- a modern day epistolary novel that relies on E-mails, reports, transcripts, notes, faxes, etc., and yes, even old fashioned snail mail letters. The writers and addressees of these messages are a variety of people, so we get a kaleidoscopic picture of Bernadette, the central character, and the four other main satellite characters, from many points of view.
The question is, does this work better in print, or in audio? As much as I liked listening to the book, I have to admit there were times I was confused about who was writing. If you zone out for a second and that second coincides with the From and To lines, you're in a bit of trouble. In print, you just look up and double check. Going back 30 seconds in audio, not so convenient, if you're driving or have to reach into your pocket to take out your cell phone.
But that is a minor quibble in an otherwise very funny and minorly insightful look at the ramifications of choosing motherhood over art and career, dealing with (unwanted) success and (perceived) failure, living with neurosis and mental illness, and finding your true place in the world while trying at the same time to be part of a family. And dealing with unimaginable horrors like five-way intersections, invasive blackberry vines, and game show hosts.
One of the genius decisions Maria Semple made in drawing her characters was to make none of them wholly sympathetic or wholly antipathetic. Bernadette is seriously annoying, Audrey is not as evil as you think, Bee is no saint. That makes them all seem so much more human, even when drawn as broadly, for comic effect, as Audrey and Soo-Lin. So, choose a favorite? Maybe another way to phrase this is, by the end, I love them all as characters.
Voices. That's the most common answer to this question. Whether that's good or bad is open to interpretation and matters of taste. They all work, but Bee's voice, which is the most used because she narrates all the in-between bits and the Antarctic trip that makes up most of the last couple of hours, can be too much to take in big doses. I hate to criticize Wilhoite for this, having had the exact opposite critique of the narrator of The Hunger Games -- I think she nails Bee's voice, but it's just too much to take in big doses.
Bernadette, obviously, Just say one short phrase, any phrase, and then sit back and listen to her rant and rave endlessly about the subject, and digress into myriad other subjects that get her goat (and then finish up her dish, since she'll lose her appetite ranting away). Well, that's a big part of this book, Bernadette's skewed world view, that's the love-it or hate-it part which most people, myself included, seem to love. The only problem would be getting her to go out to dinner, since she's agoraphobic and now resides in Antarctica.
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