about Audio-vita . . .

In daydreams, I walk to work every day. In reality, I have a forty-minute commute one way (thirty-five minutes when speeding), five times a week. I did the math--40 x 2 x 5 x 49 = more than 325 hours/year spent in my car. While working full-time, I became a full-time graduate student in the creative writing program at Wilkes University, which required at least twenty hours of studying and writing a week on top of managing a job, marriage, and empty-nesting. That's when I began to listen to audiobooks--to eke out more time every day for exposure to others' writing. I'm particular about my audiobook experiences. Since I work at a college and have nearly limitless possibilities in obtaining them through interlibrary loans, I thought I would share my favorites and the reasons why they top my list for the benefit of other listeners.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer

The Castle in the Forest: A Novel by Norman Mailer
Narrated by Harris Yulin
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio (unabridged)
Length: 15 hrs and 50 mins

About ten years ago, I immersed myself in personal reading about Hilter and the Holocaust, including a biography by Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, trying to understand how Hitler could have done what he did, how he became evil incarnate. I was no student of psychology, but I suspected family of origin issues deeply contributed to his psychopathy. I read other articles, citing beatings from his aging father and Hitler's contempt for his subservient young mother as reasons why he devolved into a tyrannical killer.

Though a fictional premise, the reasons put forth in The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer resonated with me: the devil was present at his conception, and that he was the incestuous offspring of his father and his father's niece, which intensified his worst traits, much like animals who are inbred.

And why not? Whose upbringing could have been so horrible to make them into an Adolph Hitler? The notion of the devil in a marriage bed sounds preposterous--precisely one of the reasons I enjoyed The Castle in the Forest. The narrator is a demon who goes by Dieter, who manages to make himself a fly on the wall at  the right times: when Hitler's mother is changing his diaper and admires his shiny little sphincter muscle, when "Adi" (Hitler's childhood nickname) takes part in his first war game, when Alois, his father, beats the family dog, and when Adi recounts how he killed his darling baby brother by kissing him and compromising his immune system.

At 15 hours, the unabridged recording is long but not daunting. The narrator, American actor Harris Yulin, is gifted. Where the story begins to drag in only a few areas, Yulin's reading reinvigorates. Yulin skillfully distinguishes all the characters, without overdoing. And because of Mailer's ability with historical saga, we meet dozens of characters prior to and following Hitler's birth--all Hitler's father's lovers and wives, his cousins, Hitler's siblings and step-siblings--even Nicholas and Alexandra, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet, we have no trouble connected with any of the characters or keeping their stories straight because Yulin's reading complements the storytelling without intruding on the narrative.

Some reviewers have criticized Mailer for not focusing enough on Hitler's life in The Castle in the Forest --that it spent too much time on his father Alois's life. The book is what it is. Weaving history and fiction, Catholic school doctrine and sheer provocation (i.e., Hitler's diapers stank to high heaven because he was conceived by the devil--he remained a very smelly person which gave his guardian demons a lifelong challenge masking it), it paints the portrait of the Hitler family, very like other Austrian families during the same time period. Probably better off since Alois was a career civil servant with a decent pension upon retirement. Though the Hilters weren't wealthy nor could they ever be upperclass, money never was a problem.

The book suggests it was Hitler's peer influences once he reached young adulthood combined with his demonic character that made him a monster later in life, more so than early childhood experiences.

The was Mailer's last book, published in the year he died. It is entertaining, educational, shocking, and imaginative. As an audiobook, it merits my highest rating.
Four out of four headphones. Music Music Music  Music

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What's a good audiobook . . . in my book?

First, I need to say that I love books. Period. I buy them impulsively online and at used bookstores. Whenever I visit the library, I always take out more books than I can read in the borrowing time allotted. I also like to read short stories, write an opera blog, try to have a presence on social media, and, on top of that, I read craft books. So, 325 hours a year is a mother lode of time when I could and should be familiarizing myself with the writing of others.

Let's take a whirlwind tour of some of the books I've listened to in the last nine months:

Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer
The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo
Ghost by Alan Lightman
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff
The Pearl Diver By Jeff Talarigo
The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller
Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

I started many other audiobooks and simply couldn't finish them. Why? Because of the narration. It was either too undercooked and sleepy or too over-the-top and intrusive. When I lose the story because of the narration, that is a wholly unsatisfactory listening experience for me.

Often, audiobook producers hire stage actors and actresses to read--which sometimes works well and sometimes flops, especially when stage actors and actresses are more concerned with sound than meaning, when they over-enunciate.

Occasionally, movie actors make better readers. They have more natural sounding voices and easy inflection and don't try as hard as stage actors--which is great on stage but overbearing when you're alone with them in your white, fuel-efficient Camry. Also, some authors, like Melissa Bank, excel at reading their own work.

Beware of those with broadcasting backgrounds. Their training can lead to formulaic and stilted readings of audiobooks.

Often, the author has nothing to do with the production of his or her own audiobooks and can't be faulted when the recorded book turns out poorly. Since the quality of audiobooks is highly subjective, I don't intend to pan any audiobooks--that's hardly fair to an author who's written a perfectly good book. But I will mention when an audiobook version just doesn't satisfy and drives me back to print.

As a writer, listening to audiobooks has been invaluable investment of time, allowing me to concentrate on craft or how the book is written, renewing my appreciation of writerly gifts while pointing up flaws in others' work, alternately.

So in each post, I'll give you my assessment of the complete experience as a listener, which includes reviewing production details such as narration and/or direction, in addition to summaries of the books.

I'm listening for life--audio-vita. How about you?