Thursday, March 31, 2011

Where Are You Reading Challenge? March Update

Where are You Reading? Challenge
Hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey

I am totally grooving on finding books set in certain states! I'm being exposed to books that I might not have otherwise tried and, finding out more about the places has been interesting and fun. Sadly, I'm making no dent in my TBR stacks, so maybe that's a challenge for next year!

AK - Caribou Island (by David Vann; narrated by Bronson Pinchot)
After the SNAFU involving "The Call of the Wild" (not really set in Alaska) I grabbed this title, even after so many people "warned" me about it. My recommendation: Read/listen to the book for David's Vann's writing and/or Bronson Pinchot's well imbued narration; but don't expect a fairy tale ending.

AR - Shakespeare's Landlord (by Charlaine Harris; narrated by Julia Gibson)
In an effort to avoid reading a book about Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, I seized upon this book by Charlaine Harris, though making doubly sure there were no vampires in the story. It was okay. Just okay. Yeah, that's me, full of faint and damning praise :-/

CA - When the Killing's Done (by T.C Boyle; narrated by Anthony Heald)
This is the fictionalized account of an environmentalist and the war he waged against the Park Service over efforts to eliminate non-native species from Anacapa Island off Oxnard, California. As I worked on the audiobook production of this title, I technically cannot review it; but I will say that my favorite chapter was the story of Anise ("Chapter 6" I think.) This chapter reads like a novella in the middle of the book. It's exquisitely poignant.

Also, this ☞☞☞ A podcast produced by Blackstone Audio featuring the narrator of When the Killing's Done, Anthony Heald and, the author, T.C. Boyle. I did not work on the podcast in any way, shape or form and will derive no compensation, either in terms of cash or services or, good will as a result of providing a link to the podcast :-)

CO - Columbine (by Dave Cullen; narrated by Don Leslie)
I had The Silver Rush Mysteries (by Ann Parker) on hand; but in the interest of time, I elected to pick up Columbine instead. I had heard that it was good and a "Must Listen;" but quite frankly I wasn't all that sure that I was interested in an account of that day. I decided to listen to the first CD and then decide on whether to go on with it or not. Less than 4 days later, I had managed to listen to all 14+ hours. Really, truly, a "Must Listen."

CT - Deep Down True (by Juliette Fay; narrated by Robynn Rodriguez)
This is the story of a newly divorced woman who finds herself embroiled in drama that illustrates that, though we may get older, the underlying social mechanics of finding out where we belong and our sense of self are as challenging as ever. I worked on the audiobook production of this title too, so no real review. The book did have me running home and talking to my daughter about body image and showing her how photographers Photoshop images of models. There are a lot of YouTube videos out there; but this one remains one of my favorites, ironically produced by Unilever/Dove Soaps: Model Evolution with Makeup and Photoshop

DE - West of Rehoboth (by Alexs D. Pate; narrated by Dion Graham)
Wow, I had no idea that finding an audiobook set in Delaware would prove to be so hard! I thought there would at least be something out there on the DuPonts; but apparently not! After West of Rehoboth was recommended to me, I ended up finding and buying a used library CD copy. Since I bought this audio soley on the premise that it was set in Delaware, I had no idea what to expect. It's a novel with a bit of a mystery, Black History and even a little magic. Maybe not necessarily for the young adult audience despite its fourteen-year old protagonist.
BTW, still on the lookout for sugar-based Pepsi or Coke!

HI - Unfamiliar Fishes (by Sarah Vowell; narrated by Sarah Vowell and featuring the voices of
Fred Arminsen, Bill Hader, John Hodgeman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph and, John Slattery)
This is the non-fiction account of the U.S.' acquisition of territories in the 19th century, focusing on Hawaii. I've cheerfully and eagerly checked out the YouTube links of the book trailers and Sarah Vowell's
interviews on the late night talk show circuit; but a little Sarah Vowell goes a long way :-/
She is funny and smart and, because there are some personal takes in the book, I can see why casting her to read her own book would be a plus; but she has a distinctive voice that can wear a little thin after a short time if you're listening for more than the novelty of Sarah Vowell herself. I admit that sometimes I reflexively tuned her out, so that I had to rewind to catch what I missed; but it's worth it to catch a really fun and fascinating part of U.S. history that you probably weren't taught in school :-)

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes
written and narrated by Sarah Vowell
and featuring the voices of Fred Arminsen, Bill Hader, John Hodgeman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph and, John Slattery
Simon and Schuster Audio
7.4 hours

Unfamiliar Fishes is the fun, smart and entertaining history of Hawaii, the focus being on the nineteenth century when New England missionaries came to the islands and introduced Christianity, literacy, infectious diseases and, Western ideas like democracy, entrepreneurship and, marginalization. The topics may be heavy; but Sarah Vowell's wry style of delivery makes this a relatively digestible lesson in history that probably wasn't covered in your classroom.

Ms Vowell herself is funny and smart; but the novelty of having her narrate her own book wears thin after a little while. Because she includes personal memories or thoughts in the book, she is perhaps the best narrator for her own material; but her shuttered, neurotic clip and even a mispronunciation ("forecastle" should be pronounced "FŌK-sull") may cause the listener to reflexively tune out as a defensive mechanism. The other voices listed as narrators occasionally pop in with a quote; but nothing substantive or consistent. Sometimes Sarah Vowell reads a quote, sometimes someone else. The celebrity guest roster of contributing narrators is impressive; but really no more than a gimmick and the intrusive edit-ins of their lines is disruptive to the listening experience, as is the music that signals the end of each chapter.

Recommendation: Check out Sarah Vowell on the book trailers, on the late night show circuit and even at any of her appearances on a book tour if you get the chance. She's funny and delivers her bits flawlessly; but then go buy the print book.

Other Stuff: I bought a digital dnload copy from

This book qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. Unfamiliar Fishes is set in Hawaii.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Study in Emerald

A Study in Emerald
by Neil Gaiman
narrated by Neil Gaiman
.80 hours
Harper Audio

This is a short mystery story set in London, 1881, told from the point of view of Retired Major S___ M____ - the friend, roommate and recruited sidekick of the unnamed Consulting Detective featured in this little thriller. The premise of the story is that a stabbed corpse has been discovered in Shoreditch and, the homicide is a matter of national security as the deceased was apparently a family member and friend of Queen Victoria. [How this is a matter of national security and not just embarrassment is beyond me, but the listener is expected to just roll with it...] The whole of the mystery is really a pretense by which Neil Gaiman gets to show off his character creations, Gothic atmospherics and, his own unique strangeness. The fact that the listener of this otherwise-whodunnit is never given the advantage of full disclosure of the evidence is nearly obscured by the smoke-and-mirrors of interstitial "ads," intimations that the Royal family might be something-other-than-human and, the dynamics between the competing intellects of the characters. In and of itself, A Study in Emerald isn't much in terms of a mystery; but it could more than ably serve as the opening chapter to a full-fledged novel. The tease of an arch-nemesis in the making is very titillating. Neil Gaiman narrates this short and his voice is appropriately clear, resonate, deep and drippy [reminds me of Alan Rickman, the actor.]

Recommendation: I'm not so sure that A Study in Emerald is a piece that would have you craving for more Neil Gaiman; but it is an entertaining diversion for about 45 minutes. And heck, it's free! Yes, A Study in Emerald is a free dnload from! You can also get the print copy free from Neil Gaiman's web-site too. Neil Gaiman has a rather controversial idea as to the efficacy of free and pirated material on the internet:

According to my notes for the What's in a Name? Challenge, A Study in Emerald qualifies as "a boom with a germ/jewlry in the title."

West of Rehoboth

West of Rehobeth
by Alexs D. Pate
narrated by Dion Graham
7.1 hours

West of Rehoboth is a story of Black History and Black identity set in the summer of 1962 and featuring Edward Massey - a fourteen-year old African-American boy. An introvert and a reader, Edward is fascinated with Hercule Poirot and the idea of using one's "little grey cells." Edward decides to apply his own little grey cells to solving the mystery of Uncle Rufus while on his annual trip to Rehoboth Beach, where Uncle Rufus lives in a shack on the edge of Aunt Edna's property. Uncle Rufus, a man of drunken and threatening notoriety, intrigues Edward owing to unconfirmed rumors and unanswered questions about the older man. Edward's investigation leads to a bit of magic that explores Uncle Rufus' life and an exposition on some of the different ways an African-American can get screwed by simply being Black. Rather than a litany of woes however, West of Rehoboth is a testament to not only survival, but persistence of Black character in the face of injustices.

Alexs D. Pate's writing is lush and sensual, whether describing the tension of the summer streets of North Philadelphia, the late night air of the beach with its mosquitoes and grit of sand or, the heat generated at his Aunt Edna's juke joint. Dion Graham's narration serves as a wonderful compliment to Pate's writing, smoothly navigating the shifts in point of view and different character voices, as well as the different moods of each scene. Overall, a beautiful production.

Recommendation: Because the main protagonist is fourteen-years old, there may be a tendency to classify this book as Young Adult; but I might caution against a pre-teen or young teen listening to the audiobook without adult mentorship. There are adult themes in the book concerning sex, sexuality, violence (including a murder) and an F-bomb. These elements are handled within the context of the story, which is to say, they are parts of the story and are necessary in the telling of the story; but are not the actual focus of the story. Younger listeners may have questions and a more mature person should probably be on hand with the answers.

Other Stuff: I purchased a used library CD edition from a used book vendor (a library) online.

This book qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. West of Rehoboth is set in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

True Grit

True Grit
by Charles Portis
narrated by Donna Tartt
6.25 hours

The story is about a fourteen-year old girl who hires a federal marshal to pursue the murderer of her father into the Indian Country of Oklahoma. Strong-willed, self-righteous and determined not to be cheated of the fees she is willing to pay the marshal, Mattie Ross insists on joining Rooster Cogburn on the search. Cogburn is mercenary, hard drinking and, unscrupulous in his work ethics - at once displaying the "true grit" required to get the job done and causing uneasiness among those who are trying to re-establish and define law and order in the wake of the Civil War. The contract between Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn is complicated by the arrival of a vainglorious Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (pronounced "la beef") who is himself searching for the same man as Mattie and Cogburn. He attaches himself to the posse and the story becomes as much about the dynamics between the three as it is about the actual manhunt. Set in the 1870s, its a Western that stirs the imagination as it is full of iconic images and scenes: whisky-swilling lawmen, a Bible quoting pill of a girl, gunfights and blazes of glory.

The narrator, Donna Tartt, is an author in her own right who *loves* this book, as averred in her short essay at the end of the audio. I'll not fault her strong Mississippi accent; but she is not a narrator and brings no added value to the production. D.T. lacks the fluidity required to keep the story going, drawing attention to the "he saids" and deploying pauses that even the kindest listener could not interpret as a meaningful or dramatic. There are booth noises, an occasional mouth noise and, some of her words are clipped just a fraction of second too short. This is a quick and dirty production.

True Grit
directed by Henry Hathaway
starring John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glenn Campbell

The 1969 screenplay is truer to the original story up to a point but then Marguerite Roberts (screenwriter) blows the ending so badly it's painful and, it negates the value of having adhered to the novel's points previously. The '69 movie ends much more upbeat than the novel and paves the way for a sequel. The whole of the movie is much brighter than the novel might suggest, reflecting the film-making sensibilities of the times. Dirt, drunkeness and even blood are more inferred than illustrated - giving the movie a "clean" and staged look. The actors perform self-consciously and none of the characters are fully realized. The delivery of the language is very modern in tone, characters sounding more like mid-twentieth century people than mid-nineteenth.

True Grit
directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and, Matt Damon

The 2010 screenplay makes some deviations from the book's story lines, most notably LeBoeuf's departure from the posse on two occasions; but more importantly, the ending of the original story remains intact and, arguably, the Coen Brothers' script is more true to the original story in spirit. As there are no legacies from the '69 film in the newer version, it is clear that the Coen Brothers used the book as their primary source of material as opposed to Marguerite Roberts' screenplay. The characters are better rendered in the 2010 film and the oratorical, didactic style of the 1800's is used effectively; but there is an evident self-consciousness of the actors in this adaptation as well, a 2010 sensibility of star power collected on the set. Also, there is a odd lack of tension in the 2010 version that may be attributed to editing, pacing and/or, the pervasive use of the mid-range shot.

Recommendation: Read the book in print. The audio and the movies all fall short of Charles Portis' writing.

Other Stuff: I purchased and dnloaded the audio edition of True Grit from The 1969 film adaptation was rented from iTunes and; I saw the 2010 film in the movie theater (Cinemark Tinseltown USA in Medford, OR.)

True Grit qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. True Grit is a short novel set in Western Arkansas and, Eastern Oklahoma in the Indian Territory/Choctaw Nation.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shakespeare's Landlord

Shakespeare's Landlord
by Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse series)
Lily Bard Series, #1
narrated by Julia Gibson
6.75 hours

Lily Bard is a woman with a past who has made a new life for herself in the town of Shakespeare, Arkansas. As a cleaning lady, she now leads a low-profile existence of working and going to martial arts classes. Then, one night, she witnesses the disposal of a body and her newfound peace is threatened. Fearful, paranoid, physically strong and careful, Lily starts to ask questions and poke around.

It's a fairly tepid story overall. It isn't great writing and it isn't lousy either, though mediocrity can be pretty damning. This has all the elements of a Sookie Stackhouse story, the Everyman heroine/protagonist, the sexy bad boy, the surprisingly hot sex scene and, the intrigue/mystery. In many ways it's like reading a Sookie Stackhouse novel; but without vampires. It is a solidly executed "whodunit," though mystery buffs will probably figure out who the culprit is fairly early on. There are no clues or characters delivered "deus ex machina" and everything happens within realistic parameters.

The narrator, Julia Gibson, seems to develop a more pronounced accent reflecting the South as the story progresses; but overall she narrated as competently as the material. The characters were all delineated without hyperbole and her pace was consistent throughout.

Recommendation: If you like Sookie Stackhouse, you might be interested in this precursor series; but probably will be disappointed by the lack of flair in the story. If you are not a fan of the Sookie Stackhoue series or have not read the Sookie Stackhouse series, you will probably wonder if adding a vampire or something wouldn't help the story . So, yeah, I'd pass either way.

Other Stuff: I borrowed a copy of Shakespeare's Landlord from the Jackson County Library System (Southern Oregon.) I selected this title for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. Shakespeare's Landlord takes place in the fictional town of Shakespeare, Alabama, close to the non-fictional town of Montrose.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011


by Dave Cullen
narrated by Don Leslie
14.10 hours

On April 20,1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold staged a homicidal assault on the students and teachers of Columbine High School in Littleton,CO. Using pipe- and propane canister bombs as well as illegally obtained firearms, the boys boys killed 12 students, 1 teacher and, wounded 21 others. The events of that day, born of psychopathic rage (Harris) and depressive psychopathy (Klebold,) were widely reported throughout the country, albeit incorrectly.

Columbine is a staggering work of non-fiction and journalism. More than an account of what happened "that day," it is a redress of the misinformation that was disseminated at the time of the shooting (and that continues to this day.) David Cullen was a reporter who covered the drama of Columbine; but he has spent the subsequent ten years researching and putting together this myth-busting book that clarifies the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of the now-infamous and still often mis-perceived "school shooting."

Most of what you think you know about Columbine is probably wrong and Columbine is an utterly compelling and stunning exposition of the mechanics of the assault, as well as an exposé of the bureaucratic and media missteps, the impact on the community and, an exploration of the psychological profiles of Harris and Klebold. Interestingly, among Kindle readers who highlighted the text of Columbine, most of the passages highlighted were about psychopathy. Columbine is the definitive text on the tragedy of that day and the seminal text on the Why of it.

The narrator, Don Leslie, is definitely a voice-over guy and appropriate for the material he reads. His "radio voice announcer" voice underscored the journalistic tenor of the book, though there were a couple places where dropping into parenthetical voice for block quotes would have been appreciated. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly engaging listen, stunning and impactful in its delivery.

04/20/2012 - Convo Starter:
In the past year I've recommended this book to a number of people and groups, and one of the unexpected responses I get is that some do not want to read this book out of respect for the people of Littleton; that it's best to move on and try and forget "Columbine." I am always startled by this reaction because I don't think we actually remember correctly what did happen; and without this examination and application of critical thinking, we don't gain the understanding that we need to develop preventative measures against future incidents. What do you think? Should we bury the past? Or should we try to gain insight? If you've read or listened to this book, do you think it helps? Or is it too specific to apply to the general understanding of school attacks and/or what you can do in your own communities?

Other Stuff: I borrowed a library CD copy of this book from Blackstone Audio, Inc. I selected this title for the Where are You Reading? Challenge sponsored by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. The setting of Columbine is Littleton, CO.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Caribou Island

Caribou Island
by David Vann
narrated by Bronson Pinchot
8.1 hours

If books were colors, this book would be a dark inky blue. It would be the color of undercurrents that pull the listener inexorably towards the tragic moment. It would be the color of deep impenetrable forests and lakes that shoulder against daylight and keep secrets in their primordial being. It would be the color of a night sky in the north which hints at a little daylight within it still; but holds it captive, letting it know it can be easily swallowed up. So, yes, this is my metaphorical description of Caribou Island that lets you know that it is not a novel of hope and love or even happy endings.

What Caribou Island is, is a novel about a family on the Kenai Peninsula whose quotidian routines (begotten of never-ending regret and frustration) are disturbed as Gary, the patriarch of the family, decides to build a cabin in an even more remote area off of the peninsula. His wife, Irene, the unwilling accomplice in the ill-conceived plan, assumes her role of martyr on a scale not seen since the days of Greek Tragedy, suffering from inexplicable and severe headaches and, the conviction that her husband is taking steps to leave her. Gary and Irene's daughter, Rhoda, is the Cassandra of this epic, eddying around in her parents' wake as her perceptive concern blinds her to her own domestic situation. And then there is Mark, Rhoda's brother, the erstwhile fisherman and career stoner, blithely unconcerned with the fates of those surrounding him.

David Vann's writing is figuratively photo-realistic, portraying setting and characters vividly (mosquitoes, warts and all;)
but you may have cause to want to expunge those images from your mind by the time the book has ended. It's all a bit dark in timbre and the big scene is surreal and graphic (though no surprise to those familiar with David Vann's previous work.) The setting may be gorgeous; but none of the people are likable and; there is nothing funny or happy about this story. Caribou Island is a tragedy set in modern context and as such the listener can expect to see an exposition of immutable fate and impotent people. There is no antidote in this story, no convincing argument that the events as they unfolded were not inevitable and no solace that the reader or listener is really inherently different from the characters in the book. There is little to take away from the story other than we may be living out our own modern tragedies.

Bronson Pinchot's narration hits all the right notes, imbuing
each character with distinction and pathos. If I were to fault him for anything, it would be for the voice of Monique, a young seductress. Monique doesn't sound natural, somehow at odds with the quality of the rest of the narration.

Other Stuff: I borrowed a library CD edition of this audiobook from Blackstone Audio, Inc. I selected this title for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge being hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey.

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