The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (audio)

From Dillard’s website:

The Boston Globe called it “a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task.

Recalling how I felt about Strunk & White, and my admiration for Dillard, this is promising.

writing lifeThe Writing Life is brief, and very enjoyable. Her voice as read by Tavia Gilbert feels just right for Dillard’s tone, which is knowing, wry, funny, and serious, by turns and often simultaneously (as I believe I noted in my recent teaser).

As fine as this audio version was, however, it left me wishing I’d had more time to peruse and mull. I have already ordered a print version to keep. For one thing: the format is a series of essays, and this format was a little lost on me in audio form. The transitions felt abrupt sometimes. (Perhaps I could have been paying closer attention to signals of transition. A failure of the medium, or of mine? No matter, the point is it didn’t work perfectly for me.) But I let go and just listened. Don’t be fooled by the title: this is neither the story of Dillard’s life as a writer, nor an instruction on how to live it, ourselves. It’s a bunch of musings and meditations. There are pieces of advice, and stories too, mixed in. But it’s a buffet, lots of things at once. It was fabulously enjoyable when allowed to wash over me. Next time, I will study it more closely, in print.

For the Bellingham local in me – and I recommend it to my father for this reason – there are a few wonderful references to this place, including the inspired story of the Bellingham-based stunt pilot. (Other reviewers seem to find this the best chapter of the book. It was certainly among them.) For the place-obsessed me, there were excellent reflections on various places, including islands in the Puget Sound; Roanoke, Virginia; and Cape Cod. About writing, I enjoyed hearing Dillard’s ideas about where to write (“appealing workplaces are to be avoided”) and how to write: I loved the idea that, paradoxically, writers need to live less in order to create the time and isolation necessarily to write about that life which they have somewhat backed away from. There is less firm advice than encouragement – mixed in with discouragement, but of a collegial type.

Reviews out there in the world are mixed, and seem (according to my brief survey) to base their criticism on the idea that this book is made up of wonderful parts, mixed in with less wonderful parts, that fail to make a single, wonderful whole. I guess that might be born out by my struggles with the audio form. But actually, a bunch of wonderful parts is no failure at all, and I was left feeling enchanted. For that matter, I recall that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had uneven effects on me, too – I can hardly believe that I gave it only 6 mushrooms, because I remember it so strongly and positively, but that shows how much I struggled with some parts of it, too. But really, I say again, we could do worse than many thought-provoking and wondersome components, which is what I found here.

It’s Annie Dillard, y’all. It’s good reading. The audio is good listening, although you may struggle to find it cohesive in that form. But that is the big criticism of this book anyway. So read, or listen, don’t worry about cohesion, and enjoy. I did.


Rating: 8 moths to a candle flame.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (audio)

lovers at theAgain I took way too long to listen to the whole of this audiobook, which might hinder my review a little. But it worked out rather well: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an engaging story, that covers a number of years and is told from a number of perspectives. This might have been confusing when broken up over such a long time as I took with it, but it wasn’t. Instead, it felt like it helped me dip in and out more easily: lots of time passed for the characters too in between my visits to them, so it felt natural, if you see what I mean.

The time and place setting are in the title; or rather, the title of the book is the name of a photograph, taken in 1932. The story remains in Paris (with one brief sojourn to the countryside nearby), covering the years before and during the German occupation. Several characters relate events from different perspectives, including an American writer whose voice is heard through the books and articles he writes about life in Paris at that time; a Hungarian photographer in love with Paris, writing home to his parents; a French girl who is the girlfriend of the writer and then the photographer, writing a memoir which is to be destroyed upon her death; the wealthy French woman who is the photographer’s patroness, writing her own memoir; and a woman, a couple of generations later, writing the biography of the notorious Lou Villars.

Lou is at the center of this novel, although she has no first-person voice: we only know her through the eyes of others. She had an unhappy childhood; was taught to lift weights by the nuns; had a promising athletic career until her coach tried to rape her; worked at the Chameleon, a nightclub for cross-dressers; became a professional racecar driver; met and was awed by the Fuhrer; became a spy for Germany and a torturer for the Gestapo. She is a French cross-dressing lesbian athlete, passionate about France and Joan of Arc, an unhappy woman easily swayed by those who flatter her. She is both a representation of Evil and a complicated question about how a person gets that way.

Prose’s many narrators create interesting questions, too. Are any of them, in the end, reliable? (Questions about the truthfulness of one in particular will be raised in the final pages.) There are many layers to this novel: the beauty and tragedy of Paris before and after the Nazis arrive; the fallibility of human nature; the visual arts (our famous photographer does much of the symbolic work, joined occasionally by Picasso); the challenges faced when any of us seeks to represent the past.

This is a fictional story but based in part on real people. The Hungarian photographer is based on Brassai, who took the picture called “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” which is described in the novel under the title “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” and, obviously, serves as the keystone image of the book. The American writer is based on Henry Miller. The real people are simply starting points, though, along with the powerful, mysterious photograph which titles the novel. The story itself is an imaginative work, deeply intricate in its telling (all those narrators!), and compelling. I was intrigued, and certainly recommend Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 as enjoyable and thought-provoking. The audio version very appropriately uses various narrators for the various voices, complete with accents, and was a great way to experience the book.


Rating: 7 cigarette lighters.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (audio)

station eleven

Wow. The entirety of this book is every bit as good as it seemed when I wrote about it some time ago. I am reeling, very sorry that it is finished, and will want to track down more of Emily St. John Mandel’s work as soon as I can. Thanks again, Liz, for the great recommendation as always.

Station Eleven has two settings, dually in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future world, and with flashbacks to the world of here and now. The story begins with the beginning of the collapse, when during a stage production of King Lear the lead actor dies of a heart attack onstage. The audience member who tried to save him leaves the theatre, stunned, as a highly virulent and fast-acting flu virus sweeps through his home city of Toronto; warned by a friend who is an ER doctor, he stocks up on supplies and holes up with his brother in the brother’s apartment. His brother lives on the 22nd floor and is in a wheelchair, so they do not evacuate the city.

Flash forward 15 or 20 years, and now we follow a group called the Traveling Symphony, incompletely named because they also specialize in Shakespeare productions. The world has changed: almost the entire human population of every continent died of the flu, with only small bands of people left and little technology. There is no more electricity, no more fossil fuel, no more computers. Small communities have formed but are insular and suspicious, and sometimes violent; life is hard. The Traveling Symphony brings some light to this regretful world – art is still beautiful – but the symphony members are not exempt from the hardships; they carry weapons, deal with uncertainty every day.

The story is told in disjointed chronology, jumping back and forth between the pre-collapse world and the world after. Each of these two timelines runs chronologically, but we alternate between the two. The third world is that of Station Eleven, a fictional creation of one of our characters that also bears on the real world both before and after the flu epidemic.

Perspective shifts as well between several characters, some of whom we follow both before and after the collapse – if they survive. They have aged 15-20 years in that time, which presents some interesting possibilities and points of view. It also ramps up the suspense and tension: what happened to this person or that, did she live, does he ever find his loved ones again, and do they see any consequences for their actions? Mandel is expert at teasing us with these questions, and I heartily second Liz’s feeling that this book ends too soon: I too want more.

Mandel exhibits genius in the details of all three of the worlds in this story. Her characters are outstanding: nuanced and complex people with strengths and flaws that we can mostly learn to love but never worship. The struggles of these characters ask questions of the reader: what kinds of behavior are justified by hard times? What technologies would be hardest to live without, and is there anything to be gained by going “back to basics” or back to a less technological era that we often regard as “simpler”? What is the value of art; what do we want out of it? What is the meaning of friendship? If computers and cars and airplanes and iPhones suddenly went away, should we teach the next generation about them or let that history go silent?

As a novel-reading (listening) experience, I thought Station Eleven was nearly as good as it gets: entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, thought-provoking, stimulating, colorful, well-written, compelling. As a cultural critique, I found it useful as well, although as I contemplate global collapse in its various forms and our strategies related to it, I want to think about forms of collapse that are rather more our fault than this is. That’s a little awkward; what I mean is, the flu in this story is sort of an act of god, a thing that happens to us, but I think it would be useful to think about economic, environmental, societal collapse due to human hubris and poor decision-making. The flu could be a version thereof, less directly. Still, its results are instructive or at least stimulating.

The narration on this audio production by Kirsten Potter is very fine. I told my parents partway through that there were two readers, a man and a woman, but that was wrong; between listenings, I clearly got confused, due to Potter’s fine acting of male and female perspectives throughout.

Mandel is a nuanced writer with a keen imagination. I can’t wait to discover more of her work and recommend this novel highly.


Rating: 9 knife tattoos.

The Secret Place by Tana French (audio)

secretI think I will call it a great credit to Tana French that even though this novel took me months to finish, due to my much-reduced audio-listening time, I never lost the thread or lost interest. It can be hard to read a book that slowly, over that much time. But The Secret Place is gripping, compelling, peopled by fine, interesting, and distinctive characters; it lent itself pretty well to this less-than-ideal reading (listening) schedule.

French’s dedicated readers will recognize several characters from earlier novels, although these books do not exactly form a series. The central detective in The Secret Place is Stephen Moran, who has been relegated to the depths of the Cold Cases unit, where he is not particularly happy. Then a gift is dropped in his lap: Holly Mackey, who was but a little girl in Faithful Place, is now 16 years old and boarding at a chi-chi girls’ school called St. Kilda’s. She brings Moran a card stating that the writer knows who killed Chris Harper, found murdered last year on St. Kilda’s grounds.

Moran takes this card to the Murder squad, where he has ambitions, and begins working with Detective Antoinette Conway, a prickly, defensive sort. The two form an unlikely, tentative team, and the rest of the novel covers a single, very long day they spend on campus at St. Kilda’s, solving the case.

Or at least part of it does. The Secret Place is split into two narratives, which alternate chapters: the story of Moran & Conway’s single long day, and the last 18 months or so in the lives of Holly Mackey and her three girlfriends. Holly, Selena, Julia and Becca are very, very close. They all knew Chris Harper, some more closely than they’ve let on to the police; their friendship and their lives are caught up in the case, and Moran knows it. As Moran & Conway work the case, the second narrative brings readers up to date in the girls’ lives.

As an audio production, this is effectively played by two readers, a male reader for Stephen Moran’s story and a female third-person narrator of Holly and her friends’ lives. The latter narrative is ghostly, compelling, and mystical; there are magical elements, although of course this is a realistic story; the magic is simply that of youth.

Moran is a sympathetic character who wants badly to “make it,” to fit in in Murder, to have a partner, to have a friend. He is sensitive and self-conscious, yearning. The girls wield their own self-referential magnetic power, very much evocative of the strange world of teenagerhood. Friendship, its meaning and its powers, are very much the central themes of this story.

In short, Tana French has done it again. Her characters are mesmerizing, both realistic and spell-binding. The plot is twisty: beware thinking you know where she’s headed! I love this stuff. Keep it coming.


Rating: 7 earbuds.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (audio)

**AVOID SPOILERS!** (There are none below.) As a commenter pointed out, there may be spoilers even on the dust jacket or other coverings for the book or audiobook itself. Proceed cautiously. Just trust me and read the book itself.


beside

This is one of those with a big reveal to it that *makes* the book. For the love of whatever you love, please, avoid all discussion of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves until you read it. Excepting this review, of course, which promises to be spoiler-free and is therefore safe, and brief.

I’m glad Liz recommended this one to me, on audio specifically, and I shall do the same. Get the audiobook, which is beautifully and feelingly narrated by Orlagh Cassidy. Our young female protagonist/narrator Rosemary is a little troubled, but likeable right from the start. She uses the unusual second-person voice, breaking down the fourth wall to talk directly to her audience: “you may have the impression from what I’ve just said, that… but here’s another thing I’d like you to know…” Her story is compelling from the beginning, and involves a number of different threads and an occasionally disjointed timeline. I don’t know what else I can tell you without giving it all away. It’s about family, self-determination, the nature of memory. Life. You will laugh and be amazed. Go out and get this book now, and don’t let anybody tell you anything about it. Oh – a little bird told me Karen Joy Fowler gave away the big secret in a book talk somewhere. She is an outstanding writer, but apparently a potentially disastrous speaker. Avoid her talks til you’ve read the book. Go read the book. That’s all.


Rating: 8 studies quoted.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (audio)

treasureAfter reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, I was driven to reread Treasure Island. I suspect that I only ever read the Great Illustrated Classics version, in fact: and I loved that series for several years, but I worry now about what I missed. (I reread certain of those classics in full later on, but not all. What misconceptions am I still harboring?) Husband and I first attempted this audio version, read by David Buck, on our U-haul drive cross-country this fall. But the Scottish accent, and the story-within-a-story format, proved too difficult for the big loud truck and our navigation of unfamiliar roads. Fair warning: this is not a criticism of the book (or the audiobook), but it is not the most distraction-friendly listen I’ve encountered.

The story itself is, of course, riveting, once you get into it. It is narrated from a distance of some years by the voice of Jim, who is a young boy (perhaps 12 or so?) in the time of his tale. At his father’s seaside inn, Jim assists in hosting a mysterious sailor we call Billy Bones; Billy is apparently frightened of certain other seafaring men, particularly a one-legged man who wishes him ill. When Billy dies – of fright, after a visit from a band of related ruffians – Jim finds a map within the possessions of the deceased. Local community members Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney conspire with young Jim to buy and staff a ship to go looking for buried treasure they believe is indicated on the pirate map.

Here Stevenson securely establishes several tropes of pirate fiction. The cook they install on board their ship is peg-legged Long John Silver, who sings “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” talks in the pirate-talk (“aye, matey”), and carries a parrot on one shoulder. The treasure map, marked with an X, takes them to a deserted island, where the shipmates plan a mutiny: Squire Trelawney has haplessly engaged a bunch of pirates for his crew, and they will be captained not by the captain he’s hired, but by Silver himself. By luck, Jim finds out about their scheme in time to warn Trelawney and the doctor, and the three of them take cover – with their honest captain and a few other loyals – on the island, but Silver and his men are bent on treasure and murder. Also by luck, Jim meets a man who identifies himself as Ben Gunn: he was marooned on the same island years ago, by the very same pirates. And he knows where the treasure is.

Originally published as a story for young boys, Treasure Island keeps the pace up and the action quick, after the first few chapters of set-up at Jim’s father’s inn. (Those early chapters do run the risk of wearying the short attention span of young boys and my Husband, though.) The ship’s journey is fraught with danger, but once on Treasure Island the action really ramps up: there are battles, injuries and fatalities, double- and triple- and quadruple-crossings, treasure! and intrigue. I’ll stop with the plotline there. Jim is the unlikely but triumphant hero of this story (again betraying its original audience); by virtue but mostly by luck, he contributes every major piece of action or intelligence throughout. What fun!

Pacing and action are the clear strengths of this adventure tale, which is as it should be. David Buck’s narration is fine – he does voices and accents where appropriate – but I think this version probably missed some opportunity for theatrics that this wildly theatrical story offered. It’s still a great yarn, and sets up a number of recognizable pirate jokes we know and love today. It would still suit young boys well (although look out for a slightly slow start).


Rating: 7 pieces of 8.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (audio)

starryI love-love-loved Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, so I was easily sold on the idea of this, her second novel, on audiobook. Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the story of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman who fled a troubled marriage when she took her three children with her to Europe to pursue her studies in the arts. There, Fanny met a young Scotsman, a sickly lawyer with a passion for writing rather than the law. This man, 10 years her junior, is Robert Louis Stevenson. He is attracted to her first; her reciprocation comes a little later; but they end up in a passionate love affair, complicated by her married-with-children status and his family’s disapproval (of his writing, as well as of Fanny as an adulterer and an American). She goes back to California; he follows her; she eventually divorces, and they marry. Fanny and Louis (as he is called) live in a wide variety of locations all over the world, as he battles persistent health problems and writes such classics as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As Loving Frank touched on the life of the more-famous Frank Lloyd Wright while focusing on his longtime mistress Mamah Borthwick, so does this story cover Stevenson by covering his wife. Fanny is brave, and strong-willed, and protective of her own, but also strong-tempered. She is creative, and sees herself as an artist in her own right – a painter, a writer – but is overshadowed by Louis. His health is best when at sea, while she gets deathly seasick as soon as she steps aboard. Their romance, their shared life, is deeply felt, ardent, and loving, but also rocky; both are passionate people with strong personalities, and they have their troubles.

This novel was not the overwhelming success for me that Loving Frank was, although I certainly enjoyed it. Both books are novels, works of fiction, but also shed a great deal of light on the real lives of men (and women) I didn’t know much about. As I’ve discussed before, fiction is not the most reliable source of knowledge, but I know more now than I did, and I won’t go writing any nonfiction monographs based off this reading (in other words, good enough). More, I enjoyed getting to know both strong women, Mamah and Fanny. However… Under the Wide and Starry Sky slowed down for me considerably in the middle. This might be partly my fault. Due to my own life’s events, I slowed way down in my listening patterns; maybe I was too far away from regular “reading” to appreciate the rhythm of Horan’s writing. But I think more objectively that the story of Louis and Fanny was faster-paced and more engaging early on, during their courtship and the grand achievement of their marriage, and later on, as they battled some significant late-life challenges, than it was in the middle when they bickered with friends and set up a few different homesteads. Also, I think Mamah got the spotlight of Loving Frank much more decisively, where Louis was a stronger costar in Under the… Sky. This is a loss from the feminist perspective (that I suspect Horan was pursuing, and that is part of her books’ attraction), of giving the women behind these men a little of the focus and attention they deserve. On the other hand, Stevenson himself was a great character to get to know (and I loved the Scottish accent as performed by Kirsten Potter), so that if you were not concerned about the feminist angle, you might be happy to have more Louis and less Fanny. Frankly, she was a little less likeable to me.

Although it lacked the magic sparkle that made Loving Frank a near-perfect achievement in my book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky was enjoyable, and I will miss Fanny and Louis in my life. For historical fiction about the strong women behind their better-known strong men, I continue to recommend Nancy Horan. And Potter’s narration was nuanced, had personality, and improved the experience.


Rating: 7 cacao seeds.
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