New York, NY, United States
Nowhere near the lofty status of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, the full length novel to which this short story/novella serves as a prequel. This story of how young Ajax Penumbra came to San Francisco 35 years earlier and ended up in his bookstore proved interesting enough to me as a fan of 24-Hour Bookstore, but it could not have stood on its own and doesn't rank with its predecessor, which at or near the top my all-time list of audiobooks.
The big difference between the original Sloan novel and this prequel is the point of view. 24-Hour Bookstore is narrated in the first person by young Clay Jannon in the present day. His charisma and exuberance and ingenuity really carries the novel. 1969 is in the third person, relating the story of Penumbra's early years, filling in an important part of the story, but without that same sense of wonder and discovery.
Then there is the collision of the old world and new technology, which is the central theme of both stories. For Clay, the limitless capabilities of modern computing open up doors to relearning "old knowledge" contained in legacy technology like print and literature, marrying the widsom of the ages with the promise of the future.
In 1969, microcomputing is in its infancy and it does provide a backdrop to Penumbra's journey. But he makes different choices in his youth than Clay makes three decades later. In fact, as likeable of a character as Penumbra is, his one big flaw is his timidity, and 1969 proves that it was indeed his starting point. If Penumbra's world was the real world, it would be amazing to imagine how it might have turned out if he had been as bold and resourceful in 1969 as Clay was in 24-Hour Bookstore.
Having read 24-Hour Bookstore in print as well as listening to it as an audiobook, I knew already that Ari Fliakos augmented the experience by adding a lively voice to the narrative and good characterizations. He does no less in 1969.
Deflated me was more like it. Avoiding spoilers, I was disappointed when Penumbra made his ultimate choice, which sets the stage for what we see later in 24-Hour Bookstore. I guess if young Penumbra was more like Clay, there would never have been a pretext for 24-Hour Bookstore, so in that meta-post-modern manner, I should be happy.
Any fan of 24-Hour Bookstore MUST read/listen to this prequel. Chances are I'm being too picky in my critique and most fans will love it as much as the novel. For those who haven't read 24-Hour Bookstore, I would of course recommend reading/listening to that first and then doubling back to 1969. However, I have seen reviews where people read this first and liked it well enough to continue on to 24-Hour Bookstore, so either way, I guess.
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.
I had problems with Jon Green's Fault in our Stars that I distilled, in my review, to his concept of cancer perks. But I said I was willing to give him another try, and so I did, listening to Looking For Alaska. And now I have an even bigger problem with perks -- specifically, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Just type in Looking For Alaska vs. Perks in your Google and before you can even finish your search criteria, you will get a stream of autofilled results about how similar Alaska is to Perks. For the record, Perks came first by about 5-6 years. Why didn't any of the people Green thanks in his afterword stop him and say, "John, uh -- you know, Stephen Chbosky has not only written this book already, he even directed the film. Maybe you should change things up a little."
This is not a problem of similarly themed stories. This is an exact copy. Shy boys with no friends goes to a new school and is instantly taken in affectionately by the cool kids for no reason that makes sense, instantly curing his shyness. He instantly falls in love with the wild child girl who has a boyfriend in college and who sets him up with another girl. They both have teachers who touch something special within them. And it all comes crashing down at the end with a virtually identical climactic event.
Like all John Green characters, these kids always have the perfect bon mot ready on the tip of their tongues, without fail. But compared to the Perks characters, they are that shallow, with little in their past to explain their current behavior, with one exception (there isn't even an attempt to explain why the main character ever had socialization problems, which based on what happens in this book is not something he actually has).
Perks has sexual identity crises of various sorts, traumatic events that are believable rather than contrived, consequences that are far more common in real life than the contrived ones cooked up by Green. John Green is all over the YA best seller lists with his books. I don't get why. Read Perks of Being a Wallflower instead, if you haven't already.
I would recommend any Jonathan Tropper book to anyone, anytime. Yes, I'm a fan. I've read all his books in print, and I've gone back and listened to some of them as audiobooks, and plan to eventually listen to all of them -- in fact, listening to a Tropper book that I had already read got me started on listening to audiobooks regularly, at a time when has trouble concentrating on audiobooks that I hadn't already read. But none of this helps you.
Simply put, Tropper writes an easily accessible brand of literary fiction about contemporary characters that is full of humor (often laugh out loud funny) and achieving some depth of character and insight into the lives of ordinary people that is appealing to similarly situated people. The only flaw I can find with his writing is that his novels all seem to follow the same formula, but that has not been an issue for me, because the characters and situations are still fresh each time around.
What helps are the framing devices that get Tropper started, that catalyze his humorous analyses of (mostly) suburban families and the people around them and the towns they live in -- sitting next to Robert Downey Jr. on an airplane and wondering what would have happened had his college friends kidnapped him, as in Plan B, or sitting shiva with his family after his father's death, as in This Is Where I Leave You, or having the writer of an autobiographical novel return to his hometown and face the people he wrote about, as in Book of Joe.
In Widower, that device is a column that the main character writes about his life as a man who has been recently widowed, his wife having died in a plane crash, and his difficulties getting past it. That launches him into a series of events that brings in his wife's son by a previous marriage, his twin sister, his first attempts at dating again, and others. The device is particular suitable for the audiobook format, since our audio narrator gets to read the columns that our literary narrator writes about being a widower. Good stuff!
Tropper has often been compared to Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta. I don't think the latter comparison holds up through Perrotta's last couple of books, other than their suburban family settings, because they're so dramatic, but the comparison to Hornby is spot on, even though his characters are English and usually city dwellers.
In particular, I think How to Talk to a Widower is very much like Hornby's About a Boy, given central character who are lonely single men (single for different reasons) who develop relationships with young boys (different ages) and end up as a result learning to deal with their issues about being alone.
There are audiobooks that I don't like where I give the reader the benefit of the doubt, blaming the writer rather than his or her performance. Of course, there are some where the reader performs in ways that rankle me, whether the writing is good or bad.
In this case, given a reader who has done no other audiobooks (he's primarily a stage actor in New York), I give him five stars for a fine performance, but I have to give most of the credit for that to the work that he has performed -- especially because, as I have already said, the author's framing device is particularly suited for the audio format.
Let me make sure this is clear before I get into details: This book was entertaining and I'm happy to have listened to it. And I would try another book from Chris Ewan in the Good Thief's Guide series. But let me make this clear too: I would try one more, and if it's as full of holes as this one, that would be the last.
Ewan is a mystery writer writing about a mystery writer who is also a master thief. His protagonist, Charlie Howard, grapples with the details of the mystery book he is writing even as he acts out his part as master thief in Ewan's mystery book. Given this metafictional structure, I this it's totally fair game to have problems with the holes in Ewan's plot that mirror those in Howard's book.
Howard's prize possession is a framed first edition of The Maltese Falcon, which is mentioned on page 44, pretty early on. By then, we know that he has been hired to steal a pair of monkey figurines that everyone keeps telling him are worthless. If I as reader can instantly connect The Maltese Falcon to the worthless monkey figurines, why does it take Howard, a brilliant writer and thief who prizes The Maltese Falcon, so long? Not good.
There are other foreshadows of a similar nature that are instantly evident, but I will not go into detail so as not to spoil anything -- I don't think the figurine issue is a spoiler because it is just so obvious.
Without spoilers, I will again refer to Ewan's novel-within-the-novel. Howard's editor points out a huge hole in his plot that he tries to figure out even while he tries to figure out what is actually happening to him in the plot he is living in. After he fingers who done it and how and why, his editor points out the hole in his real life plot. He spends the last pages of the book explaining it away, to no one's satisfaction (by which I mean his, his editor's, or mine).
In Ewan's metafiction, the hole in his plot is left as unresolved as the hole in his character's plot. His editor even tells him, by way of consolation, that readers won't remember how the briefcase got into the policeman's hands by the time the ending rolls around. Not willing to take that chance, Ewan confronts his big hole and merely wishes it away, unsuccessfully.
In addition, the big ending in which Howard explains what happened and fingers the perp employs the classic technique of bringing everyone into the same room as he tells them all what he figured out. Obviously done on purpose, but equally obvious is that the scene is totally contrived, totally gratuitous, and beyond credulity.
Simon Vance is a staple of audiobooks. I've had the misfortune of only listening to him read books that were inadequately plotted. Still, he has done a masterful job in every case. He has that irresistible English accent and uses it in a classic understated manner.
Since it is a series, and English, and a mystery, it could definitely be a PBS Mystery or Masterpiece Theater, although reports in the press have ABC developing it . With a British cast, Bill Nighy has the right attitude for Charlie Howard, but he may be a bit too old to play the cat burglar. Maybe one of the Fiennes boys, Ralph or Joseph. Timothy Spall would be a good Rutherford/Stuart, although I'm not sure if he's a recurring character. Victoria? I'm gonna say Kristin Scott Thomas, but if you need someone younger, Kate Beckinsale.
Classic Sixties Caper
I saw The Hot Rock when it first came out as a movie in 1972, when I was 15. My friends and I loved it, quoted it endlessly. It has since passed out of our collective cinematic memory, did so almost instantly in fact, in part due to Robert Redford's unhappiness with it (he kept it from being released on video for a long time). But when I saw it come up in a recent BOGO sale -- I didn't even know it was originally a book -- I thought I'd give it a try.
So it didn't keep me on the edge of my seat, since I knew how it was going to go, but I don't think it was written that way -- it's a comic caper in the 60s tradition with the twist being that the gang has to commit a series of heists to get their target -- the hot rock of the title. Each heist is pulled off perfectly, except that they don't get the emerald, and therefore have to go after it again.
And in addition to the plot, the characters are well drawn -- stereotypical petty thieves to begin with, but each with a personality quirk that broadens their character, often to comedic effect. Bottom line, it was a quick fun read (listen) that for me harked back to a long forgotten pop culture touchstone from my past.
Voices. Although I don't think he does them all that well. The best narrators find a voice or a series of voices that beat out what you could come up with in your imagination -- these voices are stereotypes, exactly what you would imagine.
The Perfect Heist... Gone Wrong... Again and Again and Again
Among the very best that I've ever read, both in print (which I read first) and in audio. Like many other people, I discovered Jonathan Tropper through This Is Where I Leave You and faithfully moved along with him with the follow-up, One Last Thing Before I Go. I went back and read his entire back catalog, also listening to many of them in audio format.
His second novel, The Book of Joe, is the real gem, in my opinion, establishing the formula of a relationship-challenged self-effacing protagonist going back to his roots to face his sick, dying or dead father, rival brother, and long-ago first love, along with various and sundry other characters. All to great comic effect.
What sets this one apart is its framing device: Joe left home and became a literary success writing a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel about his hometown, and now he has to come back and face all the people he wrote about, not necessarily in a flattering way. The results are hilarious -- the opposite of the dark and violent Banshee, the stage-setter for Tropper's light and comic novels.
The book compares so closely to its successors in the Tropper library, his next four books being riffs on similar topics, although his protagonists age along with the author, going from being young single men to married men to divorced men. But the title asks us to compare this story to the biblical Book of Job, as well as the parable of the prodigal son, Joe leaving home and returning like the latter, and suffering tests of faith like the former.
Scott Brick is one of the most prolific audiobook narrators. Not being one to choose books based on narrator, I have nevertheless listened to about a half dozen of his books across a number of different authors. There is a reason he is so much in demand -- he is one of the most reliable voices of audiobooks, no exception here. He is also fighting cancer of the throat, an irony for someone who relies so much on his voice. But he is so far winning that fight -- here's wishing the best to one of the best.
I could go with the title to this review, with word play similar to what Tropper does with The Book of Job -- "The Prodigal Sonny Returns" -- the parable of the prodigal son being as apropos to this story as that of Job. Or how about, "You really can go home again -- if you don't mind messing everything up first." Unfortunately, the book has gone through a couple of production cycles and has so far not made it onto the big screen.
Audiobooks that are fun and funny are my favorites. Off to Be the Wizard is definitely fun and definitely funny. That's why I chose to listen to it, even though I knew nothing else about it or its first-time author. And that's what I liked about it.
But is was off the mark, not in the same league as its nearest relatives -- Mr. Penumbra, Ready Player One, Year Zero. There were too many logical inconsistencies within its internal logic, the voices were over the top -- in the end, a great premise somewhat squandered.
Most importantly, and I hope this isn't a spoiler (it is revealed early on), this is a time travel story in which nothing anyone does can affect the future outcome. Kind of pointless, no? I would definitely have found a way to make the future part of what was at stake. In addition, with time travelers arriving from different points in time, there is another missed opportunity in not setting more of the story in those times rather than mostly in medieval England.
Subtle voicings. Philip could have just been given an English accent, not an annoying over the top English accent. Jimmy is supposed to be smart, why does he sound so much like Ratso Rizzo? Thankfully, Martin sounds normal enough, otherwise the book would have been unlistenable no matter how good the writing.
Yes. It would still be fun and funny. And perhaps the filmmakers would make the proper changes to improve the story.
While the story definitely comes to a conclusion, the final minute or two unmistakably hints at a sequel. Hopefully the author himself can improve the story line in the next segment, and hopefully a new narrator can be found.
Pontoon starts with the sudden but apparently peaceful death of an elderly Lake Wobegon woman, proceeds into the wedding plans of a young woman coming back to Lake Wobegon after leaving for a prosperous (and preposterous) career in L.A., and ends with the events on Lake Wobegon that transpire when the memorial service and wedding party take place simultaneously.
That's not much of a plot, but it doesn't have to be. What Garrison Keillor has done so well for so long in the seemingly innocuous midwest small-town setting of Lake Wobegon, in print and on radio, is to create a charming cast of characters who live ordinary lives that take small but extraordinary turns.
Pontoon is no exception -- Evelyn's recent death and Debbie's upcoming nuptials are bookend life events that provide the starting point for Keillor to fill his folk art canvas with an array of characters that capture the imagination in the simplest and humblest of ways. It is not laugh out loud funny, not dealing so prominently with the subject of death, but it is unfailingly charming.
He never refers to himself in any way, and he has created a spectrum of characters that are never less than engaging, but ultimately my favorite character is the author himself. He has been doing this for decades, and his patented formula relies so heavily on his soothing voice and his total command of his subject matter -- his setting and the people who fill it. It is not necessary to know about Keillor and his rich histories of Lake Wobegon to enjoy Pontoon, but those who know him in advance of reading the book have an edge, because as narrator he really is a major character himself.
It's always a treat when an author reads his own work, but in this case, it is even more than that, Keillor having perfected his narrative voice on his longtime radio show. I suppose one could argue that fans of the show know his voice so well that they could read the print version with that sound in their imagination, but there is no need to imagine it when Keillor himself reads his own audiobook.
Report Inappropriate Content