Summer Shorts ’14

SummerShorts2014-160

Today marks the last day of June Is Audiobook Month (JIAM) and I’m honored to host the final post for the Summer Shorts ’14 project. Today’s short story — freely available to listen to in its entirety today only — is
“Virtue of the Month” by Kathleen Founds: a poignant exploration of grief, suicide, and choices, read by Xe Sands:

“Other boyfriends left when I emphasized a point by throwing a bowl of salad out the window, or slapped them in the face for crunching too loudly on Saltines. But my meds are better-adjusted now. And Ben is more accepting, or less observant, than any other man I’ve loved.”

The Summer Shorts ’14 project is brought to you by Spoken Freely and is a month-long celebration of the art of audiobook narration, a “Thank you!” to listeners, and an opportunity to give back to the community. You can find out more about the project at the end of this post or by stopping by the Spoken Freely page of the Going Public blog but as a reminder, the purchase of the Summer Shorts ’14 compilation from Tantor Media not only gives you 20 bonus tracks but all proceeds will benefit ProLiteracy, the largest adult literacy and basic education membership organization in the nation and a group that advocates on behalf of adult learners and the programs that serve them, provides training and professional development, and publishes materials used in adult literacy and basic education instruction.

Before we get to the recording of “Virtue of the Month,” I had the chance to talk with Xe Sands and Troy Palmer (author and creator of online publisher Little Fiction) about their work, the appeal of short fiction and online fiction, and hearing or reading fiction aloud.

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Troy, you’re the brains behind the online publisher Little Fiction. Why did you create it and what does it bring to the literary community?

TP: I created Little Fiction mainly because I wanted to work with other writers and I wanted to do so in a way that allowed me to stay creative when I wasn’t writing. As for what Little Fiction brings to the literary community, I think part of it is that creativity — there’s quite a bit of attention paid to the visual aesthetic with our story covers and wallpapers. But I think we’re also just part of a growing online community that has shaken up the staid tradition of printed literary journals. For writers, there will always be something wonderful about seeing your name and your work in print, but there’s an immediacy with the online / digital format — thanks to social media — that lets writers know that they’re work is actually being read. And that’s pretty wonderful, too.

XS: I love the immediacy and access of it. As a reader, yes, there is something compelling about getting a literary journal in the mail and taking a quiet moment (yes, I really do have them…er, very occasionally) to sift through it, absorb it, etc. But there is something equally compelling about Little Fiction – it offers the same experience, but in a medium that I can stumble upon when I’m *not* able to take a quiet moment…when I’m doing what I’m almost always doing when not recording: working and reading online…and coming across a new Little Fiction or WhiskeyPaper or other online source of new work is like the most blessed of forced breaks – I can’t *not* read what I find, which forces me to slow down for a moment, step outside whatever the hell is happening in my world right at that moment, and into the world the author has created. So thank you, Troy :)

TP: Always glad to be a part of that experience for people. And that’s the beauty of online — it’s as instantly gratifying for the reader, as well.

XS: It also often allows a reader to directly interact or share their appreciation with an author…that just doesn’t exist with print publications, not in the same way.

What makes Little Fiction a sustainable publishing model or is it more of a labor of love and what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in creating it?

TP: It’s definitely a labour of love, there’s no question about that. But I think the model has elements to it that make it sustainable. I have a low overhead which allows me to give the stories away for free — and I think free will always have a certain amount of sustainability to it. Free also equates freedom. I’m not beholden to investors who are focused on their ROI or a grant system that doesn’t have my audience’s best interest in mind. The content comes first and as long as that’s there, again, there’s a certain amount of sustainability with killer content.

But I don’t see LF staying the way it is forever. There will always be an emphasis on creating great content and giving some of it away for free, but adaptability is an absolute must for anyone trying to carve their own path these days.

XS:  I find myself really REALLY hoping you find a way to sustain it…I could pretend this is for your welfare, but really it’s a selfish desire to continue to have access to amazing stories that just aren’t told elsewhere, to authors that I can’t find elsewhere – at least not when they are starting out. Well, OK, and I don’t want Troy to starve either…

All that’s to say that I’d be willing to pay for the service…but just how to monetize that? I can see that that would be  tricky thing. We (online content consumers) tend to get weird about paying for online content – something that, while I’m guilty of it, I can’t really understand. I mean, do we think it just appears there by magic? It’s work…sure love and creative passion and all that too, but it’s also work. And, well, authors and Troy deserve to eat :)

TP: How to monetize is the million dollar question. I’m not at all convinced that the subscription model works (see Byliner’s recent woes). But you know, if I got into this for money that would be the wrong reason for so many reasons. And however LF evolves, there will always be free content.

What do you look for when reviewing submissions for Little Fiction and what are the steps to publication once you’ve accepted a piece?

XS: Oooo…I’m very much looking forward to Troy’s answer to that one…

TP: Ha! Thanks, Xe. The two biggest things I look for are character and conflict — without those I don’t think you have much of a story. On a more subjective level, I look for stories that move me. And I like writing that takes chances, that isn’t afraid to devastate a reader or break someone’s heart. I typically find, with most art forms, the stuff that initially challenges us is the stuff that is most likely to stick with us for longer.

XS: Can I just steal Troy’s answer for one of mine? Pretty please? Because that’s basically why I like the LF pieces and how I choose what I choose to record on my own time, just because I want to. And why I chose the piece I did for Summer Shorts.

TP: No surprise we’re definitely on the same page there ;)

Once a piece has been accepted it’s a pretty simple process. I give some editing comments in the month leading up to publication, and start designing some cover options. Typically, it’s a pretty quick editing process, with most of the stories we accept being fairly well-crafted when they come to us. With the covers, I reach out to the authors at the start of the process and usually just send over the one I like best.

XS: I love that you create the covers to go along with the stories…it adds a nifty dimension while also acting as excellent branding for LF…and hopefully, provides a creative outlet for you in the bargain.

TP: Thanks (again). The covers are definitely a thing that helps set us apart and gave us some personality out of the gate. And of course there’s the branding (my background is in advertising — glad to see I didn’t waste all those years).

Xe, looking at the pieces you’ve recorded for the Going Public project (many of them from Little Fiction authors), I’d say you’re a fan of small press lit fic and flash or micro-fiction. What’s the appeal?

XS: Honestly? I think it’s because there’s a freedom and freshness that comes through. First, there’s no huge arc to build, so there’s usually no fluffy bits, no world-building aside from what the author can accomplish organically within the meat of the story. And while I enjoy all those “fluffy bits” when reading a full-length novel…I’ll confess to also like zeroing on the parts that matter to me. Hey, I’m a selfish reader! I’ll admit it.

Also, the writers just go for it…I mean, there’s not gentleness or couching or worry over content – they just WRITE IT. At least that’s how it feels. it also doesn’t tend to read like a piece that’s been edited and worked over and polished (all of which i absolutely NEED in a novel)…it has a rawness to it…OMG! It’s like a dress created by a fashion designer: that first one, that raw one with string hanging off and seams showing that might not actually stand up to a washing? THAT’S the one that’s oozing with passion and promise – and that’s how well-executed micro-fiction hits me – it’s that gorgeous first run that came straight out. That said, I acknowledge that I have absolutely no idea how writers do what they do, and maybe the pieces I’ve most loved have been agonized over and rewritten and were actually months in the making…I mean only praise when I say that they have a freshness and immediacy that makes them read as if they were thrown out there whole.

Troy, you’re an author as well. In fact, one of my favorite recordings from Xe’s Going Public project is your “I Thought About the Ways You Might Have Died” from Listerature Vol. 2. Is there unique value in hearing your work read aloud?

TP: Oh, wow. Thanks. There’s definitely a unique value in hearing your work read — not just aloud — but by someone who knows the craft and who is dedicated to the craft. It’s amazing and humbling. I often find, with the stories of ours that Xe has read, that I use the same phrase to promote them — that she’s breathed life into the story and its characters — but it’s because that’s what it is.

XS: Thank you, Troy. That’s…beautiful and humbling. And I concur with Kelli – “I thought About the Ways You Might Have Died” remains one of my favorite pieces as well. It’s stuck with me all this time…that ending, man. Dear lord. And it works, not because you’ve intentionally tried to make me feel something, but because it’s just such an honest outpouring of how that moment might feel – as if we’ve been allowed to see the author’s thoughts in that moment, without them knowing, without them prettying them up for us. It’s haunting.

TP: I’ve been to a number of readings and far too often it just feels like someone reading from a sheet of paper. I believe that once you get behind a mic, you’re no longer just a writer — you’re a performer. And that to me is where the unique value comes from — hearing your story performed.

XS: That is actually why I tend to shy away from listening to poets read their work aloud. Often, they seem to be fixated on the rhythm of the piece as written  – which is totally appropriate – they worked hard to create it, and the rhythm on the page is part of what makes/breaks a poem. But when that fixation carries into the reading, I find the intent and impact is lost when they read it aloud. Then again, I can be a lone horse out there on the prairie on that one.

But I have to assume it’s weird to hear your work interpreted by someone else – is it? As a performer, I have to say that the most nerve-wracking moment is often waiting to hear what an author thinks of what I’ve done with their words.

TP: For sure, it’s always a little strange hearing someone else put a voice to your work, but it’s exciting, too, to see how someone else views a piece, or a character, or a line of dialogue. I’ve also learned by this time in my life / career that you have to let go and let other people bring their take and their expertise to the table, so I’m pretty comfortable handing my work over to another person.

Xe, the recording you chose for Summer Shorts ’14 is “Virtue of the Month” by Kathleen Founds. What drew you to this piece?

XS: Dude, did you read/hear that opening paragraph? She basically had me at “This is my mother, Olivia Freedman. She hung herself from a rafter when I was eight years old.” Messy, poignant, bound to be conflicted…in other words, perfect for me :)

And I stand by my earlier request to copy what Troy said… “I look for stories that move me. And I like writing that takes chances, that isn’t afraid to devastate a reader or break someone’s heart. I typically find, with most art forms, the stuff that initially challenges us is the stuff that is most likely to stick with us for longer.” —yes, THAT. That.

I’ll add that Founds builds an amazing arc in a very short space…this has to be one of the most complete bits of extremely short fiction that I’ve read. From that launch point, there is an exploration of depression, relationships, parental responsibility, perception vs. reality, marriage, denial, conflict, resolution, etc. Hell, it’s even got math! Using a relatively mundane setting and experience – clearing out your parent’s house after they have passed, Founds then branches into the surreal with psychological visitations, explorations of the “equation of suicide,” and this woman’s desperate need to not be like her mother.

TP: That story that had me hooked from the first line. You made a great choice.

Xe, many of the flash/micro fiction pieces you pick to record pack a pretty hefty emotional punch. Does that pose any issues while recording and what do you do to make sure you’re delivering the emotional content of the story?

Wow. That’s a great question. I feel those are the easiest to tap into, and sometimes the hardest to deliver without “over” delivering. When I first started narrating, without realizing it, I think I felt this need to lead the listener – like that god-awful upswell of music that makes you cry at the end of a film, almost against your will. But when the content is there, when the author has adeptly constructed an emotional hook, something that tugs at you, or pierces you…something that slips under your skin when you’re paying attention to something else, all I need do is be present with the author’s words and just tell the story. TELL THE STORY. That’s all I’m there to do. The story carries itself. Over the past few years, I’ve been working with a pretty amazing mentor who has called me out on using voice to lead, to force a reaction…which has helped me to let go of the need to control the reaction and just let it come out all by its lonesome…because it will, if I get out of the way and stop trying to matter to the listener…because I don’t.

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And now…

“Virtue of the Month” by Kathleen Founds
Originally published in The Sun Magazine, and included in the forthcoming When Mystical Creatures Attack! from University of Iowa Press. Copyright 2014, Kathleen Founds. Recorded with permission.

 

Xe Sands

Xe Sands is an award-winning narrator known for her authentic characterizations and intimate delivery. She has more than a decade of experience bringing stories to life through narration, performance, and visual art, including recordings of Wonderland, by Stacey D’Erasmo, The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro, and Survival Lessons, by Alice Hoffman. Sands has also been recognized for her engaging romance narrations, and was named Most Impressive Narrator Discovery for titles such as Catch of the Day, by Kristan Higgins, and On Thin Ice, by Anne Stuart.

Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s Summer Shorts ’14 entry over at Every Day I Write the Book, which includes an interview with author Susanna Daniel and narrator Karen White.

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About the project

The audiobook community is giving back! Spoken Freely, a group of more than 40 professional narrators, has teamed with Going Public and Tantor Media to celebrate June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) by offering Summer Shorts ’14,an audio collection of poetry, short stories and essays. All proceeds from sales of the collection will go to ProLiteracy, a national literacy outreach and advocacy organization.

Throughout June 2014, 1-2 stories, poems and essays will be released online each day via Going Public,as well as on various author and book blogs. As a “Thank you!” to listeners, pieces will be available for free online listening on their day of release. As a bonus for those who purchase the full collection from Tantor Media in support ofProLiteracy, there are over 20 additional tracks only available via the compilation download. Full release schedule can be found on the Spoken Freely page of the Going Public blog.

About ProLiteracy

ProLiteracy, the largest adult literacy and basic education membership organization in the nation, advocates on behalf of adult learners and the programs that serve them, provides training and professional development, and publishes materials used in adult literacy and basic education instruction. ProLiteracy has 1,000 member programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and works with 52 nongovernmental organizations in 34 developing countries. Its publishing division, New Readers Press(NRP), has for more than 40 years provided educators with the instructional tools they need to teach adult students and older teens literacy skills for functioning in the world today. Materials are available in a variety of media, including the flagship publication, the weekly news source News for You, which delivers articles online with audio. Proceeds from sales of NRP materials support literacy programs in the U.S. and worldwide.

Summer Shorts ’14 is made possible by the efforts of the Spoken Freely narrators and many others who donated their time and energy to bring it to fruition. Post-production, marketing support, and publication provided by Tantor Media. Graphic design provided by f power design. Project coordination and executive production provided by Xe Sands. Non-profit partnership coordination provided by Karen White.

 

The Translator by Nina Schuyler

The Translator by Nina SchuylerThe Translator by Nina Schuyler
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Published by AudioGO Ltd. on 7/1/13
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Audiobook Jukebox

 

 

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

I liked this book quite a bit. The overall concept, the design of the protagonist’s character/story arc, the parallels between Hanne’s translation ability and how she related to people… all of that held a strong intellectual appeal for me. From the perspective of my internal emotional reader, it took me a long time to fall in sync with what was taking place in the story and although the emotional distress experienced by the characters felt realistic, I neither connected to it personally nor did I have much sympathy for Hanne or her daughter or Moto. That doesn’t make it a bad book (far from it) it just means I had two distinct experiences while listening but I consider it time well spent.

Publisher’s Blurb:

When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.

Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.

My Thoughts:

Although there are no sudden revelations in this book that will take a listener by surprise, I’m throwing out the spoiler flag at the start of this review because there is a slow build in learning about the protagonist and the story took a path that I wasn’t initially anticipating. That was part of what made this book enjoyable for me and I’m going to talk about some of those aspects of character revelation in the review.

As the motivation for a protagonist’s flight from her existing life into one that forces her to re-evaluate her relationships and how she perceives the world, losing the ability to communicate via your primary language is an intriguing and clever catalyst for a novel’s arc. When Hanne Schubert is suddenly unable to speak any language other than Japanese, she begins a journey that brings her to a point where she is forced to confront the fact that, for her entire life, her ability to seamlessly move from language to language – deriving full meaning from each one – is the polar opposite of how she relates to people and personalities that differ from hers. Hanne’s daughter, Brigitte, whom she has always viewed as too sensitive and as someone who needs to develop resiliency in order to be successful or survive in life, is set adrift by her mother’s inability to understand her.

The book opens with Hanne translating a book from Japanese to English. She develops an obsession with the main character, Jiro, and constructs what she thinks is a deep and full knowledge of who the character is – to the extent that he features in her fantasy life. When Hanne is accused by the book’s author of completely misunderstanding who Jiro is and botching the translation, she seeks out the person rumored to be the inspiration for the character – a Noh actor named Moto – and starts down the painful path of realizing that not only has she mistranslated the book, she’s been “mistranslating” her daughter all her life with disastrous consequences. Moto is similar in personality to Hanne’s daughter: mercurial, emotional, and sensitive. Once the smallest crack in her perceived ability to translate develops, finding herself in the orbit of someone so similar in personality to her daughter but with an adult-to-adult power dynamic leads to a painful series of personal revelations.

It took me a long time to be anything more than intellectually engaged by the writing. Part of that is a resistance to third person present tense as a method of connecting to characters (despite its putative sense of immediacy) and the story seemed weighted more towards “tell” expository rather than “show” descriptive. We spend a lot of time with Hanne and her thoughts and for that reason alone I was surprised it wasn’t in first person. It wasn’t written as an objective narrative and was limited in terms of the narrator’s knowledge and I sometimes had a sense of objectivity or scientific observation in the authorial voice.

Where it did work particularly well for my readerly sensibilities was in the tightly constructed way in which the depth of Hanne’s character was slowly uncovered. Although by the end I disliked the perspectives of both mother and daughter, how they reached that point was completely understandable and even if I thought Hanne was a horrible mother (FYI, I didn’t…exactly) I understood her and what motivated her parenting style. None of that understanding was conveyed to me via a wordy bat upside the head but was explained by simply allowing me to observe Hanne going about her life day-by-day with visibility to the reminiscences that would flit through anyone’s mind.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this book and for that alone it’s worth the listen.

The Narration:

My first thought in describing the narration is that if you’ve heard one Kirsten Potter narration you’ve heard them all but that might leave you with a negative impression. What I mean is that Ms. Potter is the most consistent narrator I’ve listened to in terms of delivering narrative in a measured and clearly articulated manner, character differentiation, point of view, emphasis, and back-and-forth dialogue from book-to-book. If you like her voice and narration style, which I do, then you know all you need to know if you’re deciding whether to go with the audiobook version or a text version because there won’t be any surprises for you in the narration.

Much of the novel takes place in Japan (well, most of it takes place in Hanne’s thoughts but…) and rather than utilize a Japanese accent per se, she simply adds a bit of formality to the delivery of native Japanese characters and that worked well for me. The passion Hanne feels as she goes about translating a novel is evident in the delivery and each character is uniquely presented. The third person present tense narrative has a first person presentation style which works well given the amount of time we spend with Hanne’s thoughts and musings. Overall, a good narration that gives full weight to the author’s words and intent.

 

 

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook without cost from AudioGo via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at Audiobookjukebox.com

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire MessudThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Published by Random House Audio on 4/30/13
Genres: Literary Fiction
Format: Audiobook
four-half-stars

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

An entire novel spent in the head of a woman who describes herself as “the woman upstairs” (single, childless, never making a fuss and somewhat resentful that she set aside her dream of being an artist in order to please her mother) might not be everyone’s idea of a good read but the character study in play and the tension drawn between who Nora Eldridge is, who she wants to be, and how she begins to evolve was riveting. The dynamic between Nora and the Shahid family who acts as a catalyst for her to move beyond her restrictive life is compelling while also being frustrating. Strong prose and very good audiobook narration easily move the text beyond the small irritants it held for me.

Publisher’s Blurb:

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor’s Children, a masterly new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed and betrayed by a desire for a world beyond her own.

Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long ago compromised her dream to be a successful artist, mother and lover. She has instead become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her life arrives the glamorous and cosmopolitan Shahids—her new student Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale, and his parents: Skandar, a dashing Lebanese professor who has come to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard, and Sirena, an effortlessly alluring Italian artist.

When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies, Nora is drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family; she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries, and she discovers in herself an unprecedented ferocity—one that puts her beliefs and her sense of self at stake.

Told with urgency, intimacy and piercing emotion, this brilliant novel of passion and artistic fulfillment explores the intensity, thrill—and the devastating cost—of embracing an authentic life.

Spoiler Warning:

This review contains spoilers, insofar as I tell you things that happen later in the book. I suspect that even the least observant of readers (a group I firmly place myself in) will fail to be surprised by their occurrence and I found that the narrative tension and strength of the book was never in wondering what would happen and being surprised but rather in the character study and the detailed understanding of what leads up to the inevitable. Nonetheless… Spoilers ahoy!

My Thoughts:

I’m going to start off by addressing the elephant in the room. If you’re uninterested in the minor Internet kerfluffle that ensued when Claire Messud was asked by a slate.com interviewer about, essentially, the likeability of her protagonist and she responded with a seemingly indignant spate of questions about the likeability of other literary characters (most of them by male authors and so giving the impression she felt the question was based in gender bias) then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

The question that was posed struck me as more of a lead-in to an interview by a genre reader. I say that out of a belief that, arguably, likeability is a factor in genre reading because (with enough exceptions that I hesitated before making this statement) the additional support of lyrical prose and/or the presentation of universal themes that can deeply engage the reader may be lacking. Having read about the Slate interview prior to picking up the book, I went into it with the expectation that I wouldn’t like Nora or would, at the very least, have to put up with an irrational and angry protagonist who would be made bearable by the writing that propped her up and perhaps some larger themes that might engage my brain. I was mistaken, and after finishing the book I better understand the author’s response to the question.

I don’t need to like the protagonist of the book I’m reading but I do need to understand her, either because the author has constructed a fully-formed “real” character with understandable motivations who acts in ways consistent with her backstory and the events she experiences in the book or because there is a characteristic or a situation specific to my experience or to the human experience that I can empathize with. Messud succeeds on both fronts.

Nora Eldridge is a self-defined “woman upstairs” – unmarried, childless, appearing still on her surface:

We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.

Despite the fact that the book begins with “How angry am I?” and early on includes the above description of “furious,” for most of the book Nora struck me more as trapped, struggling, and awakening to new possibilities. Although I was frustrated by the fact that she engineered her own destiny but is compelled to continue to rail against it, there’s a clarity to her perception of who she is and what she wishes she was that, in contrast to how constrained she feels within her own life, creates a strong sense of tension for the listener. She can see the walls that block her, acknowledges that they are primarily of her own making, and can even see past them to what she wishes her life was but she can’t surmount the obstacle.

Nora made the decision to forego art school in order to get, at her mother’s urging, a practical degree that would allow her to support herself if her art didn’t provide for that. She was there to support her mother when she battled cancer and lost and as the book begins, she’s now the dutiful daughter who is always there for her elderly father. She set aside her dreams of being an artist and now she teaches elementary school. While she has friends with whom she interacts, at the end of the day she goes home to an empty apartment and that eats away at her. She struggles to reconcile the life she’s living with the dreams she had when she was younger and her inner self –  the person she feels like she is within her own thoughts – and the person that the world perceives her as are at odds.

And it explains much about me, too, about the limits of my experience, about the fact that the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world. Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have—that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point.

When Nora first meets the new child in her class, Reza Shahid, the draw she feels toward him is unsettling and initially struck me as the start of an obsession. When a playground incident occurs in which Reza is injured, it brings his mother into Nora’s life. When the two women discover they are both artists, they strike an agreement to rent a shared studio and it’s at that point that everything in Nora’s life begins to change.

Sirena is aptly named in terms of the dynamic Nora has with her. Nora is drawn to Sirena in some elemental way and she acts as as both a symbol of what Nora might have become and as someone Nora believes can see the real woman and not the outline she’s been forced into in response to life’s expectations. It’s the point at which Nora’s need to be seen can only be fulfilled by the Shahids that my unease began.

Although I in no way intend to imply the book delves into a Fatal Attraction or Single White Female dynamic, the symbiotic relationship that develops between Nora and Reza and then between Nora and Reza’s mother quickly moves toward a parasitic one and I’m put in mind of the kind of unhealthy relationship typified by movies of that nature: the kind where the start of a relationship seems normal but it descends into an unhealthy dynamic that can only end badly. Nora’s sheer obliviousness to the ways in which she might be manipulated is both pathetic and heart-breaking.

Perhaps, in the end, that reader response is validation of the characterization Messud emphasizes so fiercely (and ad nauseum) via Nora’s internal dialogue: that of “the woman upstairs,” the woman whose surface is a comfort in its passivity and seeming lack of need or anger or desire. The woman who, when it becomes clear that she’s none of those things, makes the observer uncomfortable at having their expectations and perceptions shunted aside by the reality of the complexity that each person carries within.

“I see you” and “being seen” are common refrains in the book. Nora desperately wants to believe that someone sees her for who she really is. Thematically that dovetails nicely with the idea of art and the disparate artistic visions that Nora and Sirena have. Sirena’s room-sizedWonderland art installation is about a choice in how we perceive and are perceived:

One Wonderland was about trying to see things as they are, she said, about believing that such a thing as clarity was possible; and the other was about relativism, about seeing things from different perspectives, and also about being seen, and about how being seen differently also changes you. Both possibilities were amazing and frightening at the same time; but only one of them, she said, could lead to wisdom.

Nora’s small and intricately modeled dioramas of an interior landscape where careful observation through a small portal reveals a world of detail is very much like the cage she’s built around her identity and her life, with it’s stifling exterior and rich and detailed interior. Nora constructs a story about her life with the Shahids much like she builds her dioramas and it’s after visiting a friend and entertaining her daughter that the echoes between Nora’s art, her interior self, and her need to be seen begin to sound.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Lili’s world was not so different from my dioramas, or even from Sirena’s installations: you took a tiny portion of the earth and made it yours, but really what you wanted was for someone else—ideally, a grown-up, because a grown-up matters, has authority, but is also not the same as you—to come and see, to get it, and thereby, somehow, to get you; and all of this, surely, so that you might ultimately feel less alone on the planet.

Nora wants to be seen and needed for who she feels herself to truly be while fearing that her neediness will give those who “see” her power over her. She’s right. When the veil of her illusions begins to be drawn aside, it’s painful to observe and when she finally sees, literally, how Sirena sees her and has seen her all along, suddenly “being seen” is not such a desirable thing.

As Nora and Sirena’s friendship develops while working together in the studio, Nora inevitably becomes more involved with the whole Shahid family on a regular basis. She begins babysitting Reza. Sirena’s husband, Skandar, begins walking her home on the nights she’s at their house. As Sirena’s attention moves away from Nora and towards her upcoming exhibit, Nora finds herself increasingly drawn to Skandar. Skandar’s cosmopolitan viewpoint and the stories he shares about being a boy growing up in Lebanon force Nora to evaluate her own perspective on the world. As with Sirena, Nora develops an attachment to Skandar that’s largely based on her belief that he understands the real her.

Skandar has a year-long fellowship from a university to write a book about how history can (or can’t) be told truly because it will never encompass a 360 degree view of events. In the end, it must at least be told in an ethical manner. The description of what he does and what his book is about was one of the conversations Nora and he had during one of their walks.

“What does it mean, you see, that the first thing every American child knows about Germany is Hitler? What if the first thing you knew was something else? And maybe some people would say that now it’s important, after the Second World War, it’s ethical and vital that Hitler is the first thing a child knows. But someone else can argue the opposite. And what would it do, how would it change things, if nobody were allowed to know anything about Hitler, about the war, about any of it, until first they learned about Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, about Hegel and Lessing and Fichte, about Schopenhauer, about Rilke—but all this, you had to know first. Or one thing only, the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, or the Goldberg Variations, or Laocoön—one of those things you had to know and appreciate before you learned about the Nazis.”

“But the world doesn’t work like that.”

“No, it doesn’t.” He smiled in that vague way, as if amused by a joke only he had heard. “But what does it mean that it doesn’t? And what would it mean if it did?”

In addition to the fact that personally, I find that to be an intriguing philosophical consideration, it forced me to re-evaluate the way Messud was constructing Nora’s story as well as the way in which Nora constructed the story that she used to define her life.

The construction Nora puts on her relationship with the Shahids, in addition to being rooted in a lie, never seems anything but unhealthy and the degree to which the Shahids, Sirena in particular, become the catalyst that pushes Nora back towards the plans and dreams she had as a young woman to be an artist and not just someone who is occasionally creative (“…a spinster with a hobby”) was discomfiting. Nora seemed to almost need to intertwine the orbit of her life around the Shahids instead of using them to spin off into a completely realized future more in line with her dreams.

This unhealthy dynamic was only emphasized by the way in which Nora actively resents the moments in which she imagines the Shahids’ life is going on without a single thought being spared to her. Those moments were also a reminder of how very self-involved we all can be at times and it typifies one aspect that I disliked about the book: spending that much time with someone so self-involved and immersed in her own head can be very tiring and very frustrating to observe.

When her (literal) dream of a sexual encounter with Skandar becomes a reality, the dynamic between Nora and the Shahids changes once again. I found it fascinating that the dream of the affair with Skandar is far more potent in its detail than the reality of the act when it takes place, which is viewed through before and after perspectives rather than given the immediacy of a description of “during.” The way this both emphasizes the lack of meaning in the act and the difference between what Nora has constructed in her head regarding her relationship with the Shahids vs. what the reality of it is, is notable. The detail that is added in Nora’s later reflection of the event is, again, emphasis on how Nora’s internal life is a very different reality that her actual life – even when she thinks she’s finally aligning both with reality.

Because it’s written from the perspective of the protagonist looking back at the events that jolted her out of her role as “the woman upstairs,” the structure of the story balances the “now” of the evolving Nora, whom the reader can see heading down a path that can’t possibly work out, and the narrative voice of the Nora who is speaking from the future looking back in anger and dismay at her own naiveté. That contrast drives the story forward nicely and pulls the reader along with it. That division in narrative voice is also particularly effective at illuminating the character. When she speaks from hindsight, her “You know, of course…” asides to the reader are particularly engaging because they aren’t truly statements of what’s obvious to the reader, they’re statements of what Nora has just realized herself and is embarrassed to admit so she eases into the revelation with flattery to her listener.

I found this book very engaging; not a surprise considering my love of character-driven novels and my tendency to want to deconstruct the ways in which we think and what shapes us as people. It was also occasionally painful to listen to in the way that listening to someone describe actions that you know will lead to disaster is painful and annoying in the way that spending too much time hearing someone’s self-centered monologue is annoying. The writing is  strong in both characterization and in the lyrical nature of the word choices and sentence construction and I recommend it but acknowledge it isn’t for everyone.

The Narration:

Cassandra Campbell’s narration was excellent. I will admit that I spent the first hour wondering if she had been miscast but just as with my incorrect expectation that Nora would be little more than an angry and resentful woman with a grim outlook on life and I would have to find most of my readerly solace in the construction of the prose and thematic elements of the book, I was soon proved equally wrong in my initial impression of the narration. I suspect that my preconceptions of Nora’s character were what led me to expect a hard-voiced narrator who allowed barely suppressed rage to fill every utterance, but I also came to realize that what Ms. Campbell delivered was a far more accurate reading of the text and is the strongest selling point for choosing audio over text for this book.

The point of “the woman upstairs” is that she’s easy to be around and just as easy to overlook. As constrained by life and as frustrated as Nora is on the inside, on the surface she’s the elementary school teacher who leads a nearly invisible life. The narrator selection for this book ended up working to my advantage by reminding me of that fact. It’s with no intended disrespect that I say that Ms. Campbell has an unremarkable voice: it’s relatively soft at its base tone, it’s not noticeably high or low in pitch, it’s relatively “mid-west newscaster” in terms of enunciation and accent, it’s not husky or raspy… it could be anyone’s voice and to a degree, I think it subverts the author’s overall description of the character as “furious” but to the vast enrichment of the listener. It reminds us that beneath anyone’s surface is a complex life (and perhaps a life unlived) and when it winds up into moments of bitterness and true rage near the end of the book, it’s all the more powerful for that contrast.

I found each character to be clearly delineated and their personalities were nicely encapsulated within the voice they were given. Sirena’s Italian accent and her coaxing tone with its notes of subtle flattery was so vocally evocative that it was easy to see how Nora was enticed and how she could allow herself to be misled. Sirena, as spoken, struck me as more self-involved than intentionally deceitful or manipulative and that “read” of her worked better for me than what I might have mentally constructed from the text. Skandar’s cosmopolitan voice with its Lebanese underpinnings was almost ambiguous in its inflections and the vocal subtext during his interactions with Nora was very subtle, matching my uncertainty as to his motivations for engaging with Nora the way he did. Which is all in aid of saying these characters seemed very real and were never simply being voiced by someone.

Because there are two voices to Nora: the retrospective narrative voice that knows how the story ends and the voice of the woman who is going through the real-time transformation due to her friendship with the Shahids, there’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in the narration. Ms. Campbell was adept at providing the listener with a very real sense of “now” in dialogue and in the narrative sections that demand a sense of discovery while delivering a retrospective voice that hints at what’s to come without being so layered with disenchantment that the ending becomes a let-down.

I think this is one of those cases where the way in which the narration discovers and delivers the author’s intent makes the audiobook version a better way to go than the text alone.

four-half-stars

Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

Swimming to Elba by Silvia AvalloneSwimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Published by Blackstone Audio on 6/14/12
Genres: Fiction
two-half-stars

Story: B-/C+
Narration: A-

 

In many ways this audiobook was a journey to a foreign land and it was through the skill of the author that I was able to set aside a certain amount of ethnocentrism and immerse myself fully in the sensibilities of the story. In setting, the listener is presented with an incredibly clear sense of Piombino, Italy with its sweltering summers, crowded public housing redolent with the odors of life, the constant noise and motion of its inhabitants and the scent of the sea and the stagnating life washed up on its shore. Life in this steel town – the Lucchini steel foundry is the primary employer but is struggling to stay afloat in a post-industrial age – seems peopled with resentful young men who can’t escape the expectations of their life and who usually, like their fathers, end up taking a job in the steelworks. In the evenings they salve their restlessness with drugs and discotheques and sometimes a bit of theft. Youth seems destined to end early and there is a pervasive sense of suffocation and lives going nowhere as the men wear themselves out working in the foundry and the women sacrifice happiness in expectation of attaining security.

As a listener who happens to be a woman, it was also a trip back to the cusp between adolescence and maturity and in journeying along with Francesca and Anna I found, for good or bad, just as much of the familiar as the unfamiliar. The core of the story is two girls transitioning to adulthood who alternate between the naïveté of youth and an all-too-knowing confidence in their bodies and there is a palpable sexual charge that runs throughout the story. The self-absorption inherent in adolescence is nicely balanced by the affection each has for the other as well as the glimpses we have of the sometimes painful family dynamics that help shape them and drive the choices they make in life.

While Anna is reaching greedily for adulthood, Francesca is desperately clinging to the affection present in her friendship with Anna and I found them to be very realistic characters and often sympathetic ones – though not always likable. Francesca and Anna want nothing more than to escape their world of limited options and had always planned to do it together but when events shatter their already unstable family lives, the chasm that opens between them seems uncrossable and the choices they make after the split may separate them forever.

In addition to Francesa and Anna’s story the listener is presented with significant glimpses into the lives of many of the other characters. Alessio, Anna’s older brother, is a heavy machinery operator at the foundry and his drug use provides an imagined escape from being trapped. Arturo and Sandra, Anna’s parents, are in conflict as Arturo loses his job at the steelworks and then disappears for days at a time running cons in an attempt to earn enough to buy his family’s respect. Francesca’s father, Enrico, is abusive and his obsession with his daughter’s rapidly maturing body is extremely disconcerting to read. Francesca’s mother, Rosa, can’t bring herself to leave Enrico – even to save her daughter – and turns to medication to dull her pain. Toss in a handful of supporting characters and there’s a lot of head-hopping as each one gets to explain their perspective, adding a lot of tell rather than show. It also means that a large chunk of the first half of the book is brick-by-brick character creation which slowed the pace significantly.

There was a lot of minute detail in each of the perspectives. Although this played a large part in creating the well-developed sense of place that ran through the story, because it was split between such a large number of characters my overall connection with the story felt diluted. This book struck me as an intricately described year-in-the-life piece and while it was enjoyable because of how adeptly the author was able to convey the atmosphere of those lives, I often bogged down in the details and the repetition of them.

Despite not being able to say that I was completely wrapped up in the book or that I loved it, I have to acknowledge that these characters seemed like very real people to me. Even if I didn’t like them (and I definitely found Francesca’s father and his controlling nature repellent) I felt immense sympathy for Anna and, truth be told, Francesca absolutely broke my heart – especially in the beginning. At one point I alternated between wanting to pull her in close and feeling a desire to shake some sense into her.

While I am usually an audioook advocate, that’s especially true with this book because a significant amount of the connection I did make with this story was due to the narration.

The Narration:

This was my first experience with Cassandra Campbell’s narration and I’m marking it down as another win in my recent streak of new-to-me narrators whose work I need to find more of. I suspect I might have been tempted to put this book down and not pick it up again if it hadn’t been in audio and that would have been a shame because there’s a lot to appreciate in the writing.

As a translated work, it made sense to me that a heavy Italian accent wasn’t employed for the characters but combine the presence of that rhythm in dialogue with the liquid cadences of Italian proper names seamlessly wrapped in the smooth progression of Ms. Campbell’s delivery and suddenly I was entangled in lattitudes and longitudes that were miles distant and years away from my own.

I found there to be an almost gentle flow to the narrative. While that provided a striking contrast to the moments of frustration expressed by the characters and especially to the angry and controlling character of Enrico, on the opposite end of the spectrum it emphasized the slower pacing in some portions of the book. Offsetting that completely was the impression I received that the narrator (in both the literary and audiobook sense of the word) was achingly sympathetic to the characters, which kindled my own sympathies and interest to a surprising degree. Francesca was already hitting an empathetic chord in me but the almost gentle treatment her story received at times was uncommonly affecting.

The characters were distinct in presentation and personality and the vocal characterizations for Anna and Francesca were a nice blend of the supremely self-centered nature of adolescence and their awakening realization to the world outside themselves; this meant I was never irritated in listening to them because it balanced out nicely. This was an excellent narration that did nothing but enhance my interest in the story.

two-half-stars

Saving Angelfish by Michele Matheson

Saving Angelfish by Michele MathesonSaving Angelfish by Michele Matheson
Narrator: Xe Sands
Published by Iambik Audio on 3/29/12
Genres: Fiction

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

An unflinching look at the life of a junkie whose addiction is spiraling out of control and isolating her from family and friends, the suggestion of this story as literary memoir thins the protective veil of ‘fiction’ and leaves the listener with front row seats to a train wreck in progress. Not an easy book to listen to but incredibly thought provoking and delivered with care by a narrator who sounds willing to take your hand and walk you through the dissolution of a life.

The Plot:

Maxella “Max” Gordon is a drug user whose addiction has driven her parents to cut off any type of support and practically all communication with her. After a brief flirtation with staying clean, she soon succumbs to her heroin habit and is back to chasing happiness at the end of a needle, crack pipe, or pill. As an actress, the toll drugs have taken on her body has limited her to a commercial shoot for contact lenses since her eyes are the only part of her body, or so she thinks, not affected by her drug use. A disastrous encounter with her landlord and sometimes dealer puts her square in the sights of his boss and supplier Carlotta and Carlotta’s son Albert. As Max is coerced into dealing, the fragile relationship she has with her parents (long divorced but still united in their love for their daughter) is in danger of completely disintegrating but even more at risk is Max’s life.

My Thoughts:

It’s difficult to use the word ‘like’ with a book that delivers such a raw glimpse into the life of a junkie but as hard as this was to listen to with its blunt and very physical descriptions of drug use, the consequences for the body of the user, and the ruin it made of Max’s life and family, it was worth the effort. I often enjoy fiction that takes me on a virtual trip to a different country or culture or world and in a way, this book did exactly that even though the setting was California. The world of a hard-core drug addict is outside my realm of experience but the fact that the character of Max in this audiobook was loosely based on the author’s personal experiences had the effect of removing the protective layer that fiction often draws between reader and text and I felt like a helpless and appalled bystander watching a car crash. I can’t say I want to take a return trip to that unflinchingly described world but it’s a visit that I won’t easily shake from memory.

There are some complex dynamics at play in Max’s life. The break in her relationship with her parents that her drug use causes was achingly well written. As she experiences the physical effects on her heart of chasing heroin with cocaine, Max muses that “The heart’s a funny thing…there’s a lot of pressure on it. It never gets to rest.” That’s an apt metaphor for the burden her parents suffer under: wanting to help her and being unable to cut her off completely, even though they commit to a ‘no contact’ policy because continuing to enable her could end up causing her death.

There’s a somewhat dizzying vignette quality to this story that I’m not sure was intentional although it aptly implies the confusion of Max’s drug use and the snapshot moments of clarity she seems to experience. There’s a hint of the surreal that runs through the book as a porcelain angel figurine that Max steals from the Rite Aid speaks to her with the apparent intent of saving her as she stumbles around seeking her next high. That was actually far less of a surrealistic aspect for me than the the scenes of Max shooting up. While I felt that blossoming or opening was an overused description for how Max experienced the first hit, those scenes did engender a deep sense of unease. This was primarily due to the sharp contrast in how happy using initially makes Max feel, the description of the rush she gets, and the sometimes lyrical language used to describe it which contrasted starkly with the graphic descriptions of the physical damage Max was doing (and had already done) to her body and how her personal hygiene became a secondary consideration. Also in contrast to my expectations were the actions of Carlotta, the dealer. Although she coerced Max into dealing for her, she displays moments of maternal (or perhaps just manipulative) care and in one scene is preparing first communion bibles while Max and Albert are prepping baggies in another room.

In many of Max’s interactions with the surrounding characters there is a lack of a clear right or wrong line. While it’s always obvious that Max is responsible for her own actions it’s also plain that she is in no way deserving of some of the things that happen to her. She is both a sympathetic and frustrating character as the story reveals her weaknesses and inability to kick her habit while also letting the listener see the essential core of good that resides in her and her wish that she could change. Although I was mildly frustrated by an incomplete understanding of what started Max down the road she’s on and found the addition of Max’s recollections of her now absent lover Ernest to be superfluous, I admire the author’s ability to maintain a balance between the aspects of right/wrong, good/evil, victim/villain in all the characters. The end of the book, much like life, doesn’t provide any easy answers but I was satisfied with being able to draw my own conclusions.

The Narration:

The narration of this audiobook struck the right tone to carry me through a difficult listen. Xe Sands gives the narrative a gentle delivery that blends fatalistic with matter-of-fact. The inflection and emphasis of the narration is organic and the narrative is delivered with a subtlety that made the overall impact of the story more poignant considering the blunt descriptions of drug use and the unflinching picture of the physical and emotional damage to users. While some of the vocal cues such as the sudden relaxation in Max’s voice after she shoots up and the increased tension in her voice when she’s starting withdrawal added to the immersive nature of the audio, I was occasionally drawn out by the tendency of Carlotta’s accent to fade in and out. Dialogue is spot-on, flows naturally, and is consistent with the construction of the characters and their emotional states. This was very good narration that enhanced the text.