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.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (audio)

tortillaTortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

And that is, very much, what the book is about.

Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:

Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.

You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.

My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.

I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.


Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), finished

rathbonesSee also my review of the first half.

The Rathbones finished, as it started, an odd and unusual book; which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, and in this case worked out nicely. It was certainly memorable. I don’t want to give away any more plot than I already have (not much), because I think this unique reading experience does best when the reader goes in blind, as I did. So this review will be brief.

In regards to an earlier stated concern, I will say that the threads were pulled together in the end, but only in a loose weave. All the stories connect, but aren’t tied up with great neatness. I’m fine with this. It’s a dreamy tale, with vaguely supernatural elements. It nods to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick – or maybe more than nods. I liked the characters very much, by which I mean both that they are well crafted (with some complexities), and also likeable; they are not drawn in firm black lines, but a little blurrily, which is true of the book as a whole, and part of its charm.

The story of the Rathbone family is centered around the sea, with notes on the whaling industry that shaped the New England coast for a time. There are elements of a bildungsroman, a literal journey as well as a journey toward adulthood, the uncovering of family legacy and forming of new bonds. Travel and adventure on the sea are only part of what brings the Odyssey into play; more explicit references are made with The Rathbones‘ own Circe character, for example. But I’m going to stop there.

My experience in listening to this audiobook was excellent, even if I was perplexed halfway through. The reading is grand. The story is fanciful, and the narration fits it well. For those who enjoy relinquishing control and floating along with a fine author’s imagination, I think The Rathbones is an engaging and entertaining adventure.


Rating: 7 sons.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), first half

rathbonesI am not quite halfway through The Rathbones, and I am at no proper stopping point – nor am I stopping – but I do feel the need to pause and report back to you. I am intrigued and bemused by this book. I don’t love it, although I might in the end; but I don’t dislike it either. I’m just a little perplexed.

The Rathbones is told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, the last of that clan. She lives in the large, old Rathbone mansion on the Connecticut coast with her rather crazy mother and her reclusive tutor & cousin Mordecai. She wonders about the fate of her father, gone to sea many years ago now, and her little brother, whose existence is denied by mother and cousin. An unpleasant visitor sends Mercy and Mordecai fleeing in a little boat… into strange seas. They light upon one island and then another, meeting strange people who reflect in different ways on the paired mysteries of Mercy’s missing father, and the Rathbone family legacy. As I pause to write this, we are mid-journey, and I don’t know appreciably more about these mysteries than I did at page 1; and in a way I am worse off, in terms of knowing where the heck we are going, because I still haven’t figured out which thread of this story is the lead.

The writing and language are lovely, and well read by four narrators in turn: Erin Spencer, Cassandra Campbell, Malcolm Campbell, and Gabrielle De Cuir (itself an unusual convention, though I approve). The imagery is impressive as well. Moment to moment, this book is engrossing – sentence to sentence, scene to scene. But as for the overall story, I’m still baffled. Are we concerned about finding Mercy’s father (who is not, by the way, a Rathbone)? Or about unraveling the sinister, and apparently supernatural, history of the Rathbone family? Are we going to deal with the worn-out wives again, or is their episode past? Where are we going??

I’ve chosen a somewhat random example of Clark’s descriptive stylings for you here. Perhaps you can hear the dreamy, fantastical, and outlandish tone that draws me in…

Though the man was not Oriental, he wore wide scarlet silken trousers beneath the jade robe and pointed slippers of embroidered silk whose long tips quivered at each step. Mordecai stood beside me as the man approached. They were of a similar size and bearing, and each boasted a pigtail, one pale, one dark. The man bowed first to Mordecai, pausing for a moment with a troubled look. They might have been two sides to a single coin. He then bowed to me, sweeping off his pointed hat. The pigtail came away with it. Beneath the hat curled a powdered wig. Beneath the wig, a face that made Mordecai seem the fairest of men. It was all sharp angles and harsh planes, the skin rough and pale and faintly gray, though he was a young man. I judged him to be near Mordecai’s true age. It was a face that might have been hewn from the granite on the islands that the Starks had worked so hard to smooth. I thought that if I touched his cheek I might slice my finger open.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to criticize. I think I am charmed by this work. But so far it is working on me more like a series of vaguely connected short stories than as a coherent novel. We’ll see; maybe she will pull it all together soon. Mystery and obscured connections seem to be a theme, so I am hopeful that this is the case.

I also want to note that there are clear influences here of the whale-obsessed culture of Moby-Dick, as well as the fantastic interconnected adventures-at-sea of the Odyssey. The latter is one of my all-time favorites (although Moby-Dick, not so much. maybe I just need another seminar course on it), so that’s a good thing.

I am having no doubts about sticking around for the second half of this odd novel, so stick around for the next review to come. I am (at least) as curious as you are.

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (audio)

mayaI find it a little hard to believe I’ve read as little Isabel Allende as I have. You will recall that I loved Ines of my Soul as an audiobook; and I recall reading Daughter of Fortune at some point in the more distant (pre-blog) past, although I think I loved it less. Is that really all??

The music of her language reminds me of Sandra Cisneros. As soon as I began this audiobook, immediately following the disappointment of The Aviator’s Wife, I was soothed and grateful to be lulled by such lovely descriptive language (and read beautifully by narrator Maria Cabezas). The rhythm of that language is a central part of the attraction of this novel, although of course there’s more to it than that.

Maya’s Notebook is ostensibly the journal of young Maya Vidal, who turns 20 during the span of this story. That framing element of the journal is rarely referred to, but it does allow the narrative to jump back and forth in time. When the book opens, Maya is traveling from Berkeley, California to the small Chilean island of Chiloé, apparently on the run from an unlikely motley crew of threats including the mob, the Las Vegas police, and the FBI. We follow Maya as she adjusts to her new island home while also flashing back (via her journal) to the events that led her there.

Maya’s Danish mother abandoned her just weeks after birth; her Chilean father works as a pilot and is therefore scarce; but her Chilean grandmother (Nini) and African-American step-grandfather (Popo) are deeply involved, devoted parental figures, so she doesn’t suffer as an abandoned child might. In fact, she has a very happy childhood, until a sudden tragedy occurs when she is in her teens, and Maya rebels violently. I’ll refer vaguely to drugs, sex, crime, organized crime, and… Nini sends her off to Chiloé, where Nini has an old acquaintance who will take Maya in. Despite her storied past, then-19-year-old Maya adjusts well to the very foreign setting of a tiny island stuck in time. Her relationship with her new guardian, Manuel Arias, also develops nicely. These easy conquests are the first of the unrealistic touches that gave me pause.

The parts of Maya’s story that take place on Chiloé are deeply enjoyable, beautiful, and exotic enough to be pleasing and to suspend my disbelief – to quote a review in The New Republic, right to the point: “readers, confronted by fiction set in remote places and eras, are likely to suspend more disbelief than usual.” (I don’t know if it would really be this easy for Maya to win over her new neighbors. Despite being half-Chilean, she has her Danish mother’s coloring and goes locally by “Gringita.” And coloring aside, she is very different culturally from the locals; her easy transition felt very… convenient.) But the street life in Berkeley and (especially) Las Vegas increasingly reminded me of Go Ask Alice, in being simultaneously superlative in its ugliness, and cursory. It didn’t feel real, and Maya’s descent from golden child (literally), well-loved and privileged, to gutter junkie, felt even more cartoonish. This was the chief flaw of Maya’s Notebook. I also feel compelled to point out that even a woman who has played soccer since she was a little girl is unlikely to break a big, strong man’s femur with a well-placed kick.

These flaws were easy to put aside, though. This story made me laugh and cry, I loved Chiloé and its colorful people very much, and Allende’s lyricism is exemplary. There are hints of magical realism. All in all, I thought the New Republic review linked to above was a bit harsh; or maybe it’s just that it picks Maya’s Notebook apart from a standpoint of craft, even literary criticism, where I’m more interested in discussing how enjoyable I found it. I found it flawed, but enjoyable, and I will definitely be back for more.

Maria Cabezas’s reading was beautiful and just what this story deserved. I would like to say something about the translation from Spanish to English being lovely as well, but I am confused: packaging on every audio edition I can find gives translation credit to Anne McLean, but the audio that played in my ear credits Allende herself. Whoever it was, it was clearly outstanding.

Despite some faults, I am pleased.


Rating: 7 photographs.
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