The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Extendable Ears: Naomi

I have no difficulty admitting my deep and abiding love for all things Harry Potter.  Mention the name, and I become a silly, squealing fangirl.  I have read all the books multiple times, and argued with friends as to which of us is most like Hermione.  I have dropped multiple hints that I really, really want a horcrux necklace for Christmas.  I have many intricate fantasies about how I was foisted off on an unsuspecting Muggle family, but will someday come into my powers. 

I believe that the success of Harry Potter has almost single-handedly revitalized the children's publishing industry, and has introduced a new generation of kids to the idea that reading can be, you know, FUN.  Even if the books were terrible, I would appreciate their influence and their impact (see my mixed feelings about Captain Underpants).  Thank goodness, the books are also awesome.  *squeal*

If you're not a fan, Gentle Reader, leave now.  This post is for Potterphiles.   I will find something else to geek out about next week, but this week is all Harry, all the time. 

The books first came on the scene when I was not paying much attention to children’s literature.  The Sorcerer’s Stone was published right after I graduated from high school, and I was busy pretending to be a grow-up.  The next two arrived in 1999, when I was interning for a publisher in the UK.  It was not  copacetic for me to read books published by “the competition.”  I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until the Mama checked all three of them out of the library over Christmas break and gave them to me.  I loves the Mama.  (See her in The LA Times article here.)
I devoured the books, Gentle Readers, and you know why.  Like most of the world, I eagerly awaited book four, and returned from vacation to find a copy left on my bed by my then-boyfriend.  I loves the then-boyfriend.  

By the time books five and six came out, I was reserving books and attending midnight releases with 12-year-olds.  When the final book was published, I was working in a children’s book store in between classes at Very Distinguished University.  Our midnight release party was EPIC.  We were a teeny tiny indie bookstore and had never done a release party before.  We went all out: Costume Contest, Magician, Face-Painting, Trivia, and Wand-Making (mine is a lovely Phoenix-tail, BTW).                                             

One couple came on their first date.  A gaggle of girls came in with “I must not tell lies” inscribed on their hands.  One family came dressed as the Weasleys.  The boys from Durmstrang made an appearance.  I may or may not have refereed a discussion (which turned into a shouting match) as to the good/evil nature of Severus Snape. ...All in all, a highly entertaining evening.  

But this blog post is not to talk about how much I love the books.  It’s not to fantasize about a first trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s not even to play the books-or-movies game. 

[Although, I must share: friends and I dressed up for the very first movie and went to the 9:00 show at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.  We packed in with other "yes I read the book and no I'm not 12" fans.  The line wrapped around the block.  People were in INSANELY high spirits, even during the previews.  But O my goodness, Gentle Readers.  The sound--the sheer volume of sound--when the Quidditch match started.  Audience members cheered like they were at a football game!  I have never seen(or heard) such raucous behavior in a theater.  It was beyond awesome.]
 BUT. This post is to talk about the Audio Books.  As a rule, I am not an audiobook fan.  They keep me from driving off the road in boredom, but that's about it.  These audiobooks, however, blow the freaking doors off!  

Within the last two years, I drove to visit friends.  Far away friends.  10 hours driving one-way friends.  Thank goodness that I listened to a co-worker's advice and tried Jim Dale reading Harry Potter.  I listened to the first book on the way over, and the second on the way back.  I barely noticed the miles.  It's that good. 

Here's Jim Dale:
If you think he looks familiar, that's because he played Dr. Terminus in Pete's Dragon.  If you have never seen Pete's Dragon, you have never experienced cheesy Disney animation-meets-live-action fun at its finest.  Here is a younger Dale, in fabulous costume:
So what? you may ask.  He's only another actor reading another book.  And yes, he is an actor.  And yes, he reads a book.  But there's no only about it.  This man performs these books in a truly magical way (all puns? no puns? some puns intended?).  He invented 146 distinct character voices.  Long before Dale gets to the "Hermione said" portion of the line, you already know which character is speaking, since Hermione sounds nothing like Luna, or Professor McGonagall, or Pansy Parkinson.  There are no cheesy sound effects, no creaking doors or rumbling thunder; just Dale, and his remarkable performance. 
Dale has a long and storied theatrical history.  He has won a Tony and a Grammy, and has nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe...the only thing he’s missing is Susan Lucci!  His voice may sound familiar as the narrator for TV’s Pushing Daisies.  He holds a freaking Guinness World Record for creating the most individual character voices in a performance  (146, if you recall).  I have difficulty explaining how seriously this man makes me geek out!

I'm now nearly finished with The Half-Blood Prince.  I have been taking my lunch breaks in the parking lot, sitting with my feet out my car window and listening to my audiobook.  I took the long way home last night so no one would see the crying when Dumbledore died (Of course I didn't cry; I was very strong.  Dobby cried).  I will finish it on the way home tonight.  And tomorrow, while I paint my bathroom, I will start The Deathly Hallows

I may have an addiction.

But I just heard that Dale is doing the audiobook version of Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus.  That just might be my ticket out of obsession.  Then again...

For you, Gentle Readers, here is Jim Dale, reading a bit from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  Enjoy, and I encourage you to get your hands on the audio books.  You'll find yourself looking for excuses to take the long way home. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Variations of Truth: Naomi

Yea many posts ago, I told you that a friend of mine was publishing his first book (cue thunderous applause).  It comes out in September, and I got my hands on a preview copy.  Have no fear, Gentle Readers, I also bought it in hard cover.  My friends need royalties, too!  

So herein is my review of his yet-to-be-published novel (September 10th, by the way).  I am going to try to be semi-professional and refer to him by his last name, as I would any author.  It feels funny, though, not to call him “Kevin.”  Ah, the perils of knowing nifty famous people!
Any Resemblance to Actual Persons is an extraordinary novel.  It mixes genres, paints emotional landscapes with subtlety, and creates an intimate connection between the reader and an unlikeable first-person narrator.  This novel is not escapist.  It is not “fluffy.”  It is not literary dessert; it is a good steak, worth lingering over.  This is a serious work of bookish merit, and Allardice makes you work for it.  It is also bitingly funny and terrifically written:

"I hoped that there was an accident up ahead.  While that might sound sadistic, let me explain: If the traffic was slowing because of an accident, that meant that once we passed the accident, things would speed up again--and there is really nothing as satisfying as suddenly having free rein of the open highway after being packed into a traffic jam, the pleasure almost sexual in its tense-release combo.  Plus, an accident would mean that someone had suffered the appropriate consequence for making the rest of us late."

 Writing a plot summary, even a teaser, is difficult with this novel.  Ostensibly, it’s a cease and desist letter to a publisher.  Our letter-writer is Paul McWeeney, whose sister Edie has a book coming out in which she accuses their deceased father, Hollywood scriptwriter George McWeeney, of being the Black Dahlia killer.  Edie’s accusations come from “recovered” memories elicited by her therapist-boyfriend.  Paul insists that Edie is a deeply troubled woman searching for notoriety and acting out against a distant father figure.  As the letter continues, however, we find that Edie is not the only McWeeney with a flawed need for recognition.
While Any Resemblance is technically an epistolary novel, it feels more like a journal or a therapy session.  What begins as a legal letter quickly evolves into a confessional conversation with…the reader? Himself? Both, really, as Paul seems incapable of understanding that other people are worth listening to.  His self-absorption is impressive and his total ignorance of what a pompous bore he actually is informs nearly his entire missive.  

Paul McWeeney is a community college English professor whose own unpublished novels languish in slush piles everywhere.  He is pedantic, socially awkward, and overly critical of others while entirely ignorant of his own flaws.  He lives his life as if he were a character in a novel (O the irony), continually acting as if he were being observed.  For example, he is "aware that a lesser known work by a canonical author is the best public reading material since the author's name immediately commands respect for the reader but the unfamiliar title proves that I'm not just some unlettered man in an adult education class, that I'm already familiar with the Great Books list and have now branched out."  Of course he can’t understand why people find him difficult and emotionally unavailable, even as he disconnects from life around him to do things like critique furniture-as-social-commentary.  Losing his few friends and his job in his quest to derail his sister’s book, his instability becomes more and more apparent.  His obsession with the past and with clearing his father’s name distracts him from the present.

Certainly the narrative of poor mutilated Betty Short (christened the Black Dahlia by the press) is the reason behind this novel.  Her story, however, as pervasive as it is in the text, is secondary to the insights into Paul’s psyche.  Perversely (and deliberately), as the letter continues and Paul’s obsession becomes more compulsive, the reader becomes more interested in Paul, and less in the murder mystery both McWeeney children are determined to solve (one to demonize, the other to canonize their father).  

The most intriguing thing about this novel is its multiplicity of truths.  It is a palimpsest of history and fantasy, each layer of story overwritten by the subjectivity of the narrator.  At times, the reader interprets a passage where Paul parses Edie’s reading of their father’s (debatably) autobiographical novel.  And of course, no one knows the objective truth, and each character reads the facts differently.  This book has so many layers of fiction over objective facts that Truth-with-a-capital-T is a rare commodity.   It is a paean to the instability of memory and experience. 

McWeeney seems blissfully unaware of this instability, sometimes admitting to his reader that he "stole" a passage from his semi-autobiographical novels.  Once, after recounting two versions of a childhood memory, he admits "I prefer the version as it is in [my] novel."  Naturally, when he discovers that his sister has been using their father’s unpublished manuscript in the same way--as a replacement for actuality--he is furious, insisting that she can’t be telling the “truth.”

I had great fun unraveling McWeeney from Allardice, as one is deeply unlikeable, and the other is a delightful guy.  It’s great fun to watch Allardice crawl into the mindset of a sonofabitch.  It is an intriguing experience, reading a book like this written by a person you know relatively well.  Sometimes it makes the jokes funnier, and sometimes it makes the pathology of a character (especially an unsympathetic character) creepier!  I’ve enjoyed watching Allardice use moments from his own past and his own family as springboards for invention. 

Allardice’s insights into 40’s Hollywood and contemporary Los Angeles are keen, and with good reason.  He himself has a past in “the industry,” despite growing up in Northern California.  His grandfather was an Emmy-winning writer who worked for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among other projects.  Allardice has used his insider knowledge of Los Angeles and his gift for invention to craft a layered, fascinating portrait of a man who is so determined to shape the world to his liking that he almost completely separates himself from reality.  

It’s a hell of a book.  And it’s been longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.  Support a burgeoning artist, and treat yourself to a great book.  It’s worth working for.