Audiobook Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

17 09 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Read by Clarke Peters

Harper Audio

Length 18 Hrs 42 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction

Quick Thoughts: While I struggled to get a grasp on Telegraph Avenue early on, the struggle eventually reaped some rewards. Chabon’s latest offers an indicate, pop culture infused character study of two families whose personal and professional lives intertwined. Although I found the characters maddening and often frustrating, I also found them engaging. This is a novel I may not have finished in print, but the wonderful narration of Clarke Peters kept me in the game long enough to become ensnared in the story.

Grade: B

I knew before I hit play that I would struggle with Telegraph Avenue. I am not someone who tackles of books on the literary side of the book store. I like my zombies and space aliens and drunken detectives solving  unsolvable murders. I like plot driven genre fiction where things explode and the main character always gets the girl, or guy depending on their preference. Yet, every once in a while I like to take literary side trips, and it helps if I do it with someone I trust. I have read Michael Chabon before, both his Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and his children’s novel Summerland. Yet, both of these novels has appealed to me because they had some fantasy elements. With Telegraph Avenue, we have what I fear most in Literary Fiction, a character study. I struggle with character studies, because I tend to like things to happen fast. Yet, in Telegraph Avenue Chabon tells an intricate story of two and families whose personal and professional lives intertwine, set against the background of an Oakland neighborhoo in 2004. It’s a pop culture infused look at the life of two friends, one black and white, as they struggle to keep their business, a used record store, afloat in a era of gentrification and urban sprawl. 

There is a line early on in Telegraph Avenue, where Archie is talking to Mr. Jones, explaining that the reason he hasn’t yet completed the repairs he promised was because he’s been distracted by many things. Mr. Jones, in all his wisdom reply’s with something like, "Well, if you focus on the distractions, then the distractions will become your focus." This line is both prophetic, and does a good job summing up my feelings about this novel. Telegraph Avenue is about the mixed priorities in out lives. It’s about the how the so called distractions in these characters lives, were really what was most important, yet these characters never seemed to grasp that idea. It took me a long time to get into Telegraph Avenue, but what really drew me in was my frustration with Archie.  Archie was so focused on hating his father and trying to honor the man he looked at as his main father figure, that he lost focus on being a good husband and father. He was so focused on what Mr. Jones wanted him to do for him after his death, he neglected what Mr. Jones wanted Artie to do with his life. It maddened and frustrated me, to see this man focusing on the true distractions in his life, instead of seeing past them to what was truly important. This maddening aspect was truly what began to win me over to the story.  Yet, what truly grabbed me was the character of Gwen, Archie’s pregnant wife. I fell in love with her story, and every time the story moved away from her, I wanted it to go back. Gwen was the only character here that I felt really had a journey in this tale and it made me angry that so many key moments in her tale became relegated to off camera.

The other thing Telegraph Avenue did was make me confront my prejudices, major and minor. I don’t think it’s surprising that the two incites into race that I seemed to grasp, both came from white characters. At one point, Nate’s wife Aviva talks about Gwen’s reaction to being diminished as a black women, and she says,  "I know nothing about being a black woman." I found this statement to be apt, yet like the distraction statement, Aviva’s actions throughout this novel, particularly in dealing with Gwen’s aspirations, went against this notion. She seems to have no qualms with pushing how she feels Gwen should be feeling and behaving on to her.  At one point Nate says, "Black people live in a fantasy world, it’s just somebody else’s fantasy." This is another prophetic sentiment that plays out in this story and may even be a better descriptor of Aviva’s true mindset.  Yet, my biggest challenge was understanding Julius, Nate’s gay son. Earlier Mr. Jones talks about how he feels sad for Julius, not because he had anything against gays, but it was so hard life for someone so young. I wanted to feel sorry for Julius, but he seemed to go against the typical gay teen that you see in fiction. He was sort of goofy happy, and self aware. He accepted not just himself, but that his fantasies were actual fantasies. His relationship with Titus, as a straight man, was hard to understand and I just couldn’t help but feel there was something wrong with it, yet, they both seemed to accept it for what it was, and while it saddened me, it didn’t really seem to sadden the characters. Telegraph Avenue was a tough one for me. It’s definitely outside of my literary comfort zone, and it took a lot of work for me to get into it. Yet, I liked it. It’s hard for me to say exactly why I liked it. No one element blew me away. The plot was thin, but present, and the characters were frustrating, maddening and hard for me to understand at times, but always engaging. Chabon does tie it all together with a lacing of pop culture, some hip, wordy prose and an almost jazz like style where you need to listen just as much for what he doesn’t say as what he does. It was an interesting experience, and if you are willing to do the work, a rewarding one.

I will admit freely that I probably never would have finished this novel in print. The first third of the novel was full of exposition, introducing every character both major and minor, but never really distinguishing them enough  to keep a grasp of them in your head. If it wasn’t for the narration of Clarke Peters, I doubt I would have stayed long enough to be fully pulled in. Yet, Peter’s voice gives Telegraph a deep, funky vibe. Listening to Peters read Chabon’s prose was like listening to a good jazz band, you may not get what they are doing, but it sounds so good. When the book finally clicked for me, Peters took it up a notch. I was actually impressed with his range of voices. You would expect him to handle the older male characters with ease and style and he does, but he really nails the female characters as well. One of the harder things for adult narrators to do is to present believable teenage voices, but he does an excellent job with Titus, and even young Julius, a Jewish, gay, comic and martial arts loving geeky teenager. One of the reasons I did listen to Telegraph Avenue was to hear one of my favorite actors narrate a novel. Peters truly brought these characters alive for me, and I hope to see him take on more audiobook narration in the future.

Note: Thanks to Harper Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

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Audiobook Review: Goats by Mark Jude Poirier

23 07 2012

Goats By Mark Jude Poirier

Read by Ray Porter

Dreamscape Audio

Length: 8 Hrs 47 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Poirier’s character study is full of dark humor and over the top characters but manages to humanize them all enough to make the story work. Goats is definitely a step away from my traditional plot driven genre reads, but its highly enjoyable entertaining situations, offbeat characters and strong lead make it worth the trek.

Grade: B+

I know this may come as a big surprise to many people, but marijuana hasn’t really played a significant role in my life. Most of my experience with drug culture hasn’t come from direct experimentation on my part. The strange thing is, despite not being someone who explored mind altering substances, I tended to be drawn to people who did. While I was never really in any of the major "cliques" in high school, the people I tended to hang out with at school where, I guess what you would call stoners. Some of my favorite people in the world own lava lamps, enjoy Phish concerts and tended to spend a lot of time talking about nonconformity. I’m not saying these people would partake, but, well, it would be easy to make assumptions about them based on outward modes of expression. Yet, maybe despite the fact that I love these people, I never really was drawn to the traditional stoner entertainment. In all honesty, I found Phish and even The Grateful Dead to be sort of boring. I’ve read Hunter Thompson and Jack Kerouac, but I don’t find their work to be particularly life changing. I’ll laugh at stoner comedies, like Friday or Dazed and Confused, but it’s more of a laughing at the idiocy of the characters then relating with them. I have to admit, I sort of choose Goats by Mark Jude Poirier on a whim. In fact, I choose it more because I was amused that the main character was called "Goat Man" then because it was about an unlikely relationship between a young boy and an immature middle aged man who bonds over a mutual appreciation of the herb. I guess you can say I was more drawn to the characters then the actual use of marijuana in the story. The more things change…

Goats is a touching coming of age story about older than his years 14 year old Ellis, and how the change of him moving away from his irresponsible trust fund mother, and immature pot smoking mentor, to an upper crust boarding school changes the relationships between them all. Poirier uses a common archetypal character, the overly mature responsible, highly intelligent young adult and thrusts him into an untraditional story full of manipulative and immature characters. Ellis, in many ways, is baggage to all of the adult in his life. To his mother Wendy, he is her calming force and a steadying influence, yet, he is also a game piece that she uses to strike at her ex-husband. For Goat Man, a roustabout handy man who lives in Ellis’s mother’s pool room and trains goats for cross dessert treks, he is a surrogate son, yet one he uses to justify the shortcomings in his life. And for Ellis father, called "Fucker Frank" Ellis is evidence of his poor choices and failures, whose guilt causes him to reach out to, yet only as long as he fits into his comfortable world. All of the adults are, if not comfortable, accepting of Ellis to some level, as long as he stays true to their perspectives of him, but as he begins to change and grow, it strains all the relationships in strange new ways. While much of the book centers on drug use, the true story is about a young boy trying to break away from his broken family. Anyone who grew up in a nontraditional home easily recognizes the struggles that Ellis must deal with. I may not get his desire to escape into the haze of a drug induced stupor, but I totally understood his conflicting feelings as he was being used like a pawn by those meant to protect him, then blaming him when he doesn’t conform to their whims. Probably my favorite aspect of the overall tale is the loving manner in which he develops the characters of Lance and Frieda, who are well, Goats. Poirier does a splendid job giving each animal unique personalities that tie into the story very well. The segments where Ellis and Goat man interact directly with these animals are some of the highlights of this tale.  Poirier’s character study is full of dark humor and over the top characters but manages to humanize them all enough to make the story work. Goats is definitely a step away from my traditional plot driven genre reads, but its highly enjoyable entertaining situations, offbeat characters and strong lead make it worth the trek.

What is there to say about Ray Porter? You basically always know what you are going to get, a strong, clear humanizing read by an actor who understands characters. Porter is at best when he is tackling complicated character, and Goats is a playground for his skills.  For each character, Porter finds the root of their persona and brings it to life. For Goat Man, Porter is all gravelly but with and air of whimsy and his shrieking hysterical Wendy is spot on. I was wondering how a man with a strong baritone voice would handle a 14 year old, but he just softens his voice, and takes on the cadence and petulant vocal styling of a pretentious youth, and it works.  It’s always helpful when stepping out of you literary comfort zone in audiobooks to have a narrator you trust and more and more Ray Porter is one I feel I can constantly rely on to guide me through a book of any stripe.

Note: Thanks to Dreamscape Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.





Audiobook Review: A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

25 06 2012

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

Read by Cassandra Campbell

Audible Modern Vanguard

Length: 14 Hrs 19 Min

Genre: Literary Historical Fiction

Quick Thoughts:  A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is an audiobook that would have never been on my radar if it wasn’t for the audiobook community. It tells stories I don’t often read in a manner that I wasn’t prepared for. Pasulka manages to take settings I an unfamiliar with and characters who are nothing like me, and make me feel for them. This bittersweet, lovingly crafted glimpse into a fading history will stick with me for a while.

Grade: A-

Today is the first day of Audiobook Week and my first review is for the title A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka. Up until about two weeks ago, I had never heard of this book. In fact, the first time I heard of it was when audiobook engineer Ted Scott mentioned it in our interview as a book he often recommends. When I first read his answer, I thought he was discussing two books, one called A Long, Long Time Ago and another title called Essentially True. After playing with the Google monster I discovered that this was actually one book. I also discovered that narrator Cassandra Campbell lists it as one of her favorite performances. Cassandra Campbell is a narrator who I have listened to trice before and both of those productions were of Zombie Audiobooks. While I love a good Zombie Novel they are not often the best example of a narrators work. I’ve enjoyed my experiences with Campbell as a narrator, but I have yet to be blown away by her performances. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is a type of novel I almost never listen to. It is Literary Historical Fiction that takes place in Poland. It’s tells the story of a family living in a small village during World War 2 and their descendants living in Krakow after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The closest audiobook I have experienced that took place during this time and setting was Harry Turtledoves World War series, yet I highly doubt that Pasulka’s tale would include alien lizards.  I felt if a narrator was going to blow me away, this was precisely the type of story that would give her the vehicle to shine.

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True was nothing like I expected. When I first started reading it, I thought the small town setting and the significance of "The War After The War to End All Wars" would make that part of the book my favorite. Pasulka tells her tale in alternating passages, and I expected the scenes involving Beata, the bar girl in post Soviet dominated Krakow to only serve as color for the more interesting tale of the struggles of a small town during the Nazi invasion of Poland. I had this entirely backwards. Pasulka’s tale of Half Village and their struggles during the war is told in a surface level, almost fairy tale like way. While you are instantly engaged with the characters, they have an almost underdeveloped feel. They often felt more like grand characters of legend, then actual people dealing with actual troubles.  While I was expecting a lot out of this story, the tale she told wasn’t what I expected. Pasulka tells of those left behind, the family that must deal with the consequences of their sons, husbands and fathers as they fight as partisans against the invading story. It was compelling and at times touching, but it lacked a certain depth. Yet the simplicity of this side of the story only serves as counterweight to the lavish, heart wrenching tale of the awkward, village girl Beata, struggling to find her place in big city Krakow. Stripped of everyone she loved Beata moves into a boarding house with her hard Aunt and irresponsible cousin. She works each day in a jazz club, where she pines for a meek clarinet player who plays occasionally in the owner’s band. Pasulka created a character who is quite different from me yet was instantly relatable. Her attempts to find her place in the world and struggles with esteem and purpose have a universal quality that manages to avoid coming off pat. The true beauty in the tales is the way it balances the two stories, having each play off each other in unexpected ways. Small reveals in one tale, lead to even bigger insights into the next. Each tale individually would be missing something, but tied together Pasulka paints a truly beautiful portrait of family and the search for ones place in the world. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True is an audiobook that would have never been on my radar if it wasn’t for the audiobook community. It tells stories I don’t often read in a manner that I wasn’t prepared for. Pasulka manages to take settings I an unfamiliar with and characters who are nothing like me, and make me feel for them. This bittersweet, lovingly crafted glimpse into a fading history will stick with me for a while.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I choose this audiobook was that I was hoping to be blown away by Cassandra Campbell’s performance. Well, I was. What amazed me about her reading wasn’t just her ability to pull of authentic Polish characters, but the way she managed to make each character distinctive. Often times, when narrators have multiple characters with similar ethnic background, these characters will sort of run into each other. Yet, Campbell puts loving detail into each character bringing them alive in wonderful ways. Under the narrators fine touch, this world comes alive. Campbell uses changing rhythms and tones to display the contrast between the big city life in Krakow and the environs of Half Village that helps increase the affect of Pasulka’s alternating timelines. This is truly one of the beautiful things about audiobooks, when you do take a chance and step outside your comfort zones, the right guide can make that trip even more rewarding.





Audiobook Review: Millennium People by JG Ballard

12 03 2012

Millennium People by JG Ballard

Read by David Rintoul

AudioGo

Length: 8 Hrs 46 Min

Genre: Literary Mystery

Quick Thoughts: While the satire sometimes falls flat, and the outrageousness gets muted by the bland lead character, there is something quietly compelling about Millennium People that kept me actively anticipating the next level of the plot intractably developed by Ballard. Ballard pulls together aspects of his past work, especially his early Dystopian and the psychosexual elements of Crash, to present an eerily predictive look at Middle Class disquiet.

Grade: B

JG Ballard is an author that defies labeling. His early work is remarkably full of science fiction, with some of the more fascinating and weirdest apocalyptic scenarios written. He has written about a world where everything is turning to crystal, and an apocalyptic vision where the wind juist begins increasing until it devastates the planet. His catastrophe novels where full of social commentary, and fascinating concepts pushed to their extreme. Then their came Crash., a bizarre, psychological examination of people who get turned on by car crashes. Ballard then went on to write in a vast array of genres. In many of his novels, like the brilliant High Rise, he examines the urban life of modern man, nd it’s ability to adapt to extreme situations. In many ways, Ballard became both the champion, and biggest critic of the middle class. Ballard has always fascinated me, and when I saw that Audiobook Jukebox’s Solid Cold Reviewer was offering one of his final novels, Millennium People, for review, I had to snatch it up.

I have trouble affixing a good label on Millennium People as far as genre. It has elements of a modern set dystopia, with touches of the psychological thriller. It’s got an underlying mystery that drives the narrative, but for a great portion of the book, that mystery is pushed aside to handle to sociopolitical elements of the story. At it’s core, it is the story of a man, David Markham, who is personally investigating a bombing at Heathrow Airport that killed his ex-wife. To do this, he becomes involved in domestic protest groups, looking for groups with a penchant for violence. Markham’s motivation for this investigation is sort of hazy. In many ways, it seems that the drive to find his ex-wife’s killer is more to fill a psychological hole made from his resentment of her, as well as the not to subtle manipulation of his current wife. One of the problems with the overall story is that for it to work the way that Ballard wants, it necessitates a bit of a bland character, and since this character is the perspective for the story to unfold, it gives what could be a fascinating plot, a sort of blandness of it’s own. Some of the characters that should be outrageous, and compelling become dulled through the perception of Markham. Yet, there are moments when this blandness helps accentuates the dark humor, allowing what would be normally be mildly amusing to actually become laugh out loud funny in contrast to the rest of the plot. As David becomes more and more engrossed in the protest movements, he becomes less and less sure he is truly working undercover to discover the truth behind his wife’s murder, or actually becoming a player in the disquiet. Ballard’s novel is amazingly prophetic. While written in 2003, it eerily predicts the working middleclass angst that you see in movements like the Tea party and Occupy, despite their differing politics. The theme that the middle class is the new proletariat resonates through the book, with the working people of Chelsea Marina rising up in protest against both the Bankers, as well as the governmental support of the impoverished.  Ballard balances this nicely, particularly in the guise of Richard Gould, who preaches that the only affective violent protest is the unreasonable, unpredictable act. While the satire sometimes falls flat, and the outrageousness gets muted by the bland lead character, there is something quietly compelling about Millennium People that kept me actively anticipating the next level of the plot intractably developed by Ballard. Ballard pulls together aspects of his past work, especially his early Dystopian and the psychosexual elements of Crash, to present an eerily predictive look at Middle Class disquiet.

David Rintoul offers a soft, understated reading of Millennium People that matches the tone and feel of the novel just right. His voice had a way of lolling you, almost relaxing you, allowing you to separate yourself from the characters, and view the plot in almost a role of omniscient observer. For some stories this sort of separation would do a disservice to the plot, but here it actually works, Rintoul never blows you away, even his reading of the final bit of action is subtle and dispassionate, but I personally believe this is how this story should be read. I think there is a bit of a desire to label this novel and it’s reading boring. It’s not. While the main character is bland, and the plot subdued, I found myself reflecting on the issues of this novel more than I do on most works full of nonstop action, and explosions.

Note: I reviewed this title as part of AudioJukebox’s Solid Gold Reviewer Program. That’s to AudioJukebox and AudioGo for providing me with a copy of this title fro review. To learn more about the program and find Audiobook titles for review click on the Image below.





Audiobook Review: Cain by Jose Saramago

6 12 2011

Cain by Jose Saramago

Read by Kevin Pariseau

Audible, Inc

Length: 5 Hrs 24 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction/Biblical Satire

Quick Thoughts: In Cain, readers will find some laugh out loud moments, and a lot of fun in the early parts of the novel as Saramago gives us a new perspective on old Biblical legends, but be prepared for a major shift in tone as the main character becomes more and more disillusioned by a God he believes is, if not totally evil, at least sadistic.

Grade: B

As a child, I spent almost every Sunday morning in Sunday School.  The one thing you have to admit about the Bible, despite your religious affiliations, or level of commitment, the Bible is full of some wonderful stories. I always loved many of the Old Testament tales, Noah and the Ark, Moses and the burning bush, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, Daniel and the Lions Den, and Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. I loved these stories. They were full of brilliant visuals, death defying actions, betrayals, and rewards for faith. Presented at Sunday School land, these were sweet little morality tales. Yet, as I grew older, I began to see that the surface tales that were sugar coated for us children were full of darkness and brutality. After the walls of Jericho came down, the Israelites wiped out the residents of the town of Jericho in a manner that would be called genocide today. Joseph’s brothers attempted to kill him, all because they were jealous that there father gave him a nice jacket. Add to this the even more brutal stories, of Achan who because of his sins, was burned to death along with his entire family, of Jael who killed an opposing army’s leader by driving a tent spike through his head. Yes, the Bible is full of vicious brutality, especially in the early books. In fact, the one story that forever altered my thoughts on God was the story where God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, as a sort of test. I always found this story to be sadistic, and in no way have I ever been able to redeem the image of a God who would toy with his believer so, with the God I choose to believe in.  In Cain, Jose Saramago’s final novel, we follow the infamous Cain, cursed by God for killing his brother, in a time hopping Journey through many of these brutal moments.

In many ways, Cain is a sacrilegious journey through those Sunday School stories that you may have grown up with. I think that Saramago may have had many of the same troubles I have attempting to justify the actions of a seemingly sadistic old testament God with the "God is Love" slant of many modern churches. Saramago uses a lot of dark humor, and clever skewing of the classic biblical stories to present his look at the acts of a malevolent deity. Many of the characters of the Bible, and biblical mythology make an appearance, but maybe not quite as one would expect. I found much of the early part of the novel to be humorous, delightfully irreverent, and wickedly fun. Saramago plays around with the omniscient narrative offering explanations for how someone like Cain would have knowledge of certain idioms or why two characters would talk in a certain manner that seem incongruous to their place in history. Also, his use of Cain’s nonlinear movements through Biblical history worked well, and could be quite funny at times as Saramago plays with time travel interactions.  For much of the novel the story reminded me of Christopher Moore’s biblical satire Lamb, with its light hearted irreverent tone. Yet, as the story progresses, it became more dark and bitter. "The Lord" slowly transforms to from a deity who is a bit cold, and cruel, to almost a manically evil figure that gets off on seeing his followers tortured. Cain himself becomes less a likeable antihero, and more of a man wallowing in his bitterness towards God. The tonal shift was hard to take after the almost whimsical earlier tone of the novel. In Cain, readers will find some laugh out loud moments, and a lot of fun in the early parts of the novel as Saramago gives us a new perspective on old Biblical legends, but be prepared for a major shift in tone as the main character becomes more and more disillusioned by a God he believes is, if not totally evil, at least sadistic.

Cain is written in Saramago’s typical stylized aesthetic writing style. For fans of his style, which consists of long, seemingly endless sentences and paragraphs, without breaks for dialogue, and inconsistent use of capitalization and punctuation, you may feel like you are missing something by listening to this novel in audiobook form. Yet, people who love Saramago’s storytelling yet struggle with his stylized writing may find the audiobook version a blessing. The narrator, Kevin Pariseau reads the novel with an almost sardonic tone which fits the narrative to a tee. His reading is not particularly dynamic, but very appropriate for the text. He reads most characters in an almost bland, unaccented manor. Not that his characters came off as cardboard cut outs, they were full of life and wit, yet their basic voice seemed almost like you were listening to news broadcasters yet this actually fit well with the tone of the tale.  Any attempt to over perform this novel, probably would have done a disservice to what the author was trying to do. Because of that I give a lot of credit to Pariseau for his restrained yet sly reading of this novel. For fans of satire, who don’t mind a little sacrilegious humor, Cain could be a nice, short little diversion in your reading rhythms.