Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Lotus Eaters

The Lotus Eaters

By Tatjana Soli

narrated by Kirsten Potter

14.90 recorded hours

Blackstone Audio

Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) whetted my appetite for more novels about the Vietnam War. Previously a topic that did not particularly interest me, given that I'm not much for topics that happen in my own lifetime, the Vietnam War had made little impression upon my quotidian thoughts. That changed when Karl Marlantes managed to dump me in the middle of the jungle. So now, the Vietnam War has gotten into my head. Everyday I think about it. Sometimes it's a small thought like when I see a Vietnam War Veteran’s license plate. Sometimes it's a bigger thought like when journalists compare Iraq with Vietnam. But the point is, that the Vietnam War has become a part of my living history, my present, even though I was not there. The most natural way for me to feed my interests is to read. Fiction. Non-Fiction. It doesn't matter because in reading more and more about any topic, what is true becomes evident and what isn't falls away.

When Matterhorn was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, a companion review of The Lotus Eaters also appeared (read Danielle Trussoni's review and Janet Maslin's earlier review.) I was at first reluctant to pick up The Lotus Eaters because it didn't sound gritty enough. It sounded more like a love story for women to read then a book that would transport me to the Vietnam War. I can’t pinpoint what changed my mind; but it may have been pure laziness. The company I work for produced the audio and so I could (and did) walk over to the warehouse and borrow a copy. And besides, there is a helicopter on the cover…

The story is about Helen, a girl who arrives in Vietnam as a novice photographer, ostensibly choosing Vietnam because she wants to discover more about the circumstances of her brother’s death as a soldier. It becomes clear however, that Helen’s own nature has led her there and, now that she is in Vietnam, is intrigued by the land and people. But the overarching theme of the novel is really the addictions that war junkies (the hard core soldiers, the correspondents and photographers who stay on and, the civilians who remain) both relish and suffer despite common sense and the relationships that would otherwise temper risky choices.

The book opens with the fall of Saigon. The listener becomes a voyeur of events that unfold during that day in April 1975 when the crush of people motivated by fear and desperation struggle to escape the approaching conquering armies. The listener follows Helen, the veteran female war photographer as she negotiates the physical and psychological detritus of the city. It becomes clear that this is not your musical, Miss Saigon. Images of the day imprint upon the mind’s eye as much as a newspaper photograph would, a clever literary technique given the protagonist’s profession. This photograph-as-prose approach is subtle in the beginning and more obvious later when certain scenes are literally framed.

Kirsten Potter’s voice is very cool, calm and detached and, appropriate for the novel. Her voice is clear and transparent enough to tell the story and very subtle changes in her tone convey a shift in mood and/or speaker and, accents are used sparingly. The listener is relegated to the third person omniscient POV from the onset of the book and remains there as the author intends. And therein lies my quibble. I don’t want distance from the events. I want to feel them. And I don’t. Still, the highly descriptive prose and the writing technique make this a worthwhile listen. Just don't expect Matterhorn.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A is for Awful

A is for Alibi
By Sue Grafton

Narrated by Mary Pieffer

Books on Tape, Inc.

7.60 hours

This was a Sounds Like a Mystery (SLAM) group selection for the June 2010 discussion. I got my copy of the audiobook from the Jackson County Library System. The cover was different and, correctly identified the reader as Mary Pieffer; but this is the cover art currently used both by Random House Audio, Inc and
This review was originally published on before I had my blog set up.

This is the first of Sue Grafton's Alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator based in Santa Teresa, CA. In this book, Kinsey Millhone is hired by a woman (who has been convicted for the homicide of her husband) to find out who really killed her husband. It was okay, except for three problems: Mary Pieffer, Kinsey Millhone and, Sue Grafton:

  • Mary Pieffer (the narrator:) This is an older recording (1993) and narration styles were different then. Attention was paid to verbatim and neutral interpretation of the text. So maybe, in 1993, listeners found this recording acceptable and even commendable; but now, the narration is annoying. The narrator's voice was colorless and sometimes it sounded like a computer reading.
  • Kinsey Millhone (the protagonist:) Ewww! She doesn't like dogs, likes the smell of her own sweat and, she likes small, dreary, cheap spaces. She's supposed to come across as tough, but I thought of her as crass and belligerent. Seriously, by the time of the climatic action scene in the water, I really didn't care if Kinsey made it or not. Actually, that's not true. I was kind of hoping she'd get swept out to sea. [And no, I don't consider this a spoiler since we know Kinsey makes it to appear in 20 more novels to date!]
  • Sue Grafton (the author:) In creating an unlikable heroine who gives the reader/listener no opportunity to invest any enthusiasm for the protag, I am surprised that SG has generated a following of readers willing to follow her through to "U!" In A IS FOR ALIBI, the writer tips off "whodunnit" almost immediately (which makes Kinsey look stupid for not picking up on this) and, has her protag immediately investigate "the homicide of [the accountant]" as opposed to "the death of [the accountant]." Maybe this was all innovative (in terms of writing style and mystery plots) in 1988, but it doesn't work for me now.

I've been told that some titles are better than others; that Judy Kaye is a better narrator and, that I should give the series another chance; but really, I have a ton of other books and audiobooks that sound more appealing, so I'll pass.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Things They Carried

“I liked Matterhorn but Best Vietnam Novel Ever? I don’t think so”

In the above rather provocative tweet sent by a book blogger, a
link to a book review of Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) was attached. I dutifully clicked on the link and read a rave review about the book:
"It's the best novel I have ever read about Vietnam, which is saying something as I loved Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried."
- Michael Jones for The Huffington Post
Now, considering that it took me two weeks to “get out of the bush” after listening to Matterhorn (narrated by Bronson Pinchot,) I was ready to wholeheartedly agree; but then I realized Matterhorn is the only novel about Vietnam I have ever experienced, so what the heck do I know? Hence, I decided to read more novels about Vietnam. Fortuitously, while I was browsing the porch offerings at the Boothbay Library in Maine (any book = 25 cents!) I came across a copy of The Things They Carried and felt it was destiny that it should be the first book to read and compare with Matterhorn.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the truth of Vietnam, not necessarily what really happened in Vietnam; but stories that show the truth of Vietnam, especially its senselessness. The short story collection (loosely connected by recurring characters) is more about writing about Vietnam than it is about the actual experience of Vietnam. TTTC is metaliterature that allows the reader to intellectually grasp the meaninglessness of the Vietnam War without feeling it in our guts. The stories are illustrations and abstractions of what it was like for Tim O’Brien but the reader is removed from the immediacy of the action.

But maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, the text had no “voice” to shape it, give life to the nuances or the angst of the characters. And now the second fortuitous event occurs in my quest to discover a book that might possibly challenge Matterhorn as The Best Novel About Vietnam: had one of their member sales! I was able to snag a copy of The Things They Carried (narrated by Tom Stetschulte) rather inexpensively! YAY! My excitement was short-lived however.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien
Narrated by Tom Stetschulte
Recorded Books
7.00 hours

Tom Stetschulte did not seem particularly invested in the text, much less able to color the narrative needed to make the characters, including Tim O’Brien, “pop.” His voice did not exhibit a range much beyond his own more mature voice, so the 18 to 20-something-year-old characters lacked a certain vibrancy and specific characteristics, such as ethnicity. When writing or expressing universals, such as the senselessness of war, perhaps Tim O’Brien and Tom Stetschulte did not think this was important; but the Vietnam War needs the context of specifics to draw us into the time and place. To even begin to make sense of the incomprehensible, the reader/listener needs to be drawn in viscerally, tactilely, to engage as if he were actually present. From there, the mind might be able to grasp the scope of the war experience; but expecting a reader to process the war experience "top down," i.e academically or intellectually without the feel of the war, is arguably impossible.

Robin Whitten, Founder and Editor of AudioFile Magazine (who, by the way, reviewed TTTC as narrated by Tom Stetschulte and gave it an Earphones Award - read the review here), called my attention to the podcasts that the National Endowment of the Arts produced as part of The Big Read. The NEA/Big Read produced a series of podcasts, each covering a title in their program, of which TTTC was one. I loved the podcast! It contained excerpts from an interview with the author, military vets and, actor Bradley Whitford reading from the book. There were even a couple of cool sound f/x (e.g. the sound of a chopper which moved from the left channel to the right and, a sound clip of The Rolling Stones.) I’m sure Robin Whitten thought that having the background material on TTTC would make me appreciate the novel more; but mostly I thought it was a shame I couldn’t get a recording of Bradley Whitford reading The Things They Carried! Bradley Whitford sounded like he had much more of an affinity for the text.

The Bottom Line:
The writing left me detached and
the narration was uninspired.

Matterhorn = 1, Other Vietnam Novels = 0

Other Vietnam Novels TBR: The 13th Valley (by John M.Del Vecchio;) Dispatches (by Michael Herr;) The Lotus Eaters (by Tatjana Soli;) Fatal Light (by Richard Currey) and maybe Going After Cacciato (by Tim O’Brien.) If you have a recommendation for a book (fiction or non-fiction) about the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!