Tag Archives: audio books

Bishop Latour meets the elegant goats.

I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather three times, including an audio recording narrated by David Ackroyd which I only recently completed. These three readings were so far apart that each time seemed a fresh introduction to the characters and the setting. And yet, I do think that the first two readings helped to form a love in my soul for the Southwest territories of the United States, so that this third time I found it there waiting for me, like the warm sand beneath a red rock butte, a place where I might bed down for the night under the stars and feel whole.

Ackroyd’s voice and narrative style seem perfect for the story. There is a steadiness and a lack of hurry that aligns with the faithful dailiness of the lives of the two missionary priests as they try to meet the spiritual needs of a vast diocese that had just enlarged by nearly 30,000 square miles with the Gadsden Purchase.

They are based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but make frequent trips by horse or mule of hundreds and thousands of miles, even into Old Mexico, to take care of ecclesiastical affairs, to baptize babies and perform marriages, and to serve Mass. Their characters are sympathetic and rich; the story of their friendship over the decades is a thread woven through the novel, made up of small stories scattered through the years.

I’m using this audio book now the way I have two or three others in the last years since I sleep alone, for the times when I don’t sleep. I put a well-known story to play on my phone, set the timer for 30 minutes, and let David or another nice person read me to sleep. This only works with voices that do not draw attention to themselves in various ways, usually by being overly dramatic.

That means I am reading/listening to the book, based on a true story by the way, a fourth time. Because every anecdote and scene seems more luminous and meaningful than ever when it is told or described by a warm human voice, I may post here some passages that appear plain and dry to you poor people who may never have breathed the air of New Mexico or seen the Arizona desert in bloom. But today, it’s only goats we will consider, and I imagine that they are goat-ish the world over.

“After the feast the sleepy children were taken home, the men gathered in the plaza to smoke under the great cottonwood trees. The Bishop, feeling a need of solitude, had gone forth to walk, firmly refusing an escort. On his way he passed the earthen threshing-floor, where these people beat out their grain and winnowed it in the wind, like the Children of Israel.

“He heard a frantic bleating behind him, and was overtaken by Pedro with the great flock of goats, indignant at their day’s confinement, and wild to be in the fringe of pasture along the hills. They leaped the stream like arrows speeding from the bow, and regarded the Bishop as they passed him with their mocking, humanly intelligent smile. The young bucks were light and elegant in figure, with their pointed chins and polished tilted horns. There was great variety in their faces, but in nearly all something supercilious and sardonic. The angoras had long silky hair of a dazzling whiteness.

“As they leaped through the sunlight they brought to mind the chapter in the Apocalypse, about the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb. The young Bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children.”

-Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop

The Secret Language of Girls

I listened to The Secret Language of Girls in the car on my trip to Nevada earlier this summer. It had been on my Amazon wish list for a year, so when I saw it at the librarsecret languagey it was an easy decision to grab that one off the shelf. I had started my browsing in the section with the adult CD’s, but so many of those would be longer than I could finish on most of the trips I take.

This is the story of a year in the lives of some middle-school girls, which is not something I would normally like to read about. But I’ve appreciated the author’s voice in other books I’ve read by her, notably Chicken Boy, which I reviewed here.

I’m comforted knowing that Dowell’s books are on the shelves as a wholesome alternative to the slime that is oozing ever lower into nihilism, and into the younger age-range, the kind of thing Meghan Cox-Gurdon critiques in this article: Darkness Too Visible. Through her characters’ stories Dowell explores the issues that are common to every generation of modern adolescents, without any of it feeling antiquated. I assume that this is how the children themselves feel about the books — if they are still on the library shelves after ten years, is it not because they are actively in circulation?

Dowell captures the self-conscious angst of adolescent girls, revealing the cattiness, unkindness, confusion and downright meanness, without passing judgment on what is a difficult time for everyone. She wrote this book about ten years ago, when perhaps it was all too fresh in her own memory. Girls are best friends in 5th Grade, and then because of their personalities and choices they grow apart, sometimes so distant that they forget to treat each other as fellow humans.

“Let’s humiliate someone,” says one girl to Marilyn, and one of our heroines reluctantly agrees to humiliate the girl who not long before was her best friend. It’s because she feels trapped by the choice she’s made to be in the popular group and pay obeisance to the leaders of that pack. Otherwise they may turn against her….

Boys are often what comes between friends. Although I’m dismayed at the sexualizing of our society to the point where this most wholesome book has to include events  such as kissing games between eleven-year-olds, this (and much worse) is the reality many children have to deal with, and Dowell does everyone a favor by showing us what goes on in Marilyn’s mind and heart at a barely-chaperoned party, and how she gains self-understanding.

The older brother of the party-giver is an amputee, and all the other girls say, in effect, “Oooh, that’s creepy.” They are disgusted, while Marilyn finds him very nice. But of course it’s her peers, the gangly adolescent boys, who end up awkwardly pecking her cheek or lips when the spinning bottle stops and points to her. She finds it very unsatisfying.

“She decided she didn’t like this game very much. She wanted to choose whom she got to kiss. Other people shouldn’t be able to choose for her.”

“She also knew that legs didn’t have anything to do with kissing. In fact she was starting to think lips didn’t have much to do with kissing either. Kissing was about hearts….As far as Marilyn was concerned, she was still waiting for her first kiss.”

Considering the likelihood these days of young girls getting physically involved with boys way too early for their good, there is a need for this kind of vicarious lesson. Girls can go with Marilyn to the party and leave smarter. They will be further on their way to knowing the truth that sex and all that leads up to it are about more than recreation and experimentation.

I remember how it was at that age — you fall in love with boys right and left, because you are falling in love with the whole experience of falling in love. It’s hard to be true friends when all that is going on, but in this book there is a new girl in school who is an little unconventional, and  also refreshingly sensible and kind, as she tries to help another confused protagonist.

“Paisley laughed. ‘Why don’t you quit thinking about love and boyfriends and girlfriends? Why don’t you just think about Andrew O’Shea, the human being?'” Out of the mouth of babes! Isn’t that what we all should do, what it means to grow up — to think of the other person as he is in himself, not just as someone useful for our own ego or enjoyment?

My listening to this book in audio instead of print format added an extra level of complexity to my response. I kept wondering if the narrator’s interpretation of the characters was in line with the author’s. Michelle Santopietro narrated this Random House audio edition, and I found it hard to believe that the young people spoke in a sarcastic tone half the time.

Some of the mothers in the story are obviously so consumed with their own drama that they can’t shift their focus and notice what is going on with their children. I also recall from that age the vague feeling that I was on my own. But the voices that Santopietro gives to the mothers make them sound stupid to me, not just out of touch.

Just the other day I read Arti’s thoughts on what makes a good audiobook narrator, and another post on how different the experience of reading the text yourself is, from that of listening to a recording. I know I was very aware of the narrator coming between me and the author in this case, and I didn’t enjoy that aspect at all. I began to wonder all sorts of things about the narrator, while normally I’d aim my extra curiosity toward the author. “Is Santopietro a mother herself?” was one of the central questions raised.

The box of CD’s of The Secret Language of Girls says that it’s “Recommended for listeners ages 13 and up,” which is odd for a book about 11- and 12-yr-olds. I thought perhaps that was a strategy for getting the intended age group to be more curious about it. But on Amazon the book info says for age range 8-12 yrs., or grades 4-6. That’s more like it.

So far my granddaughters are homeschooling and I can’t see them having time or need for this kind of story. They have wise mothers who are paying close attention. I wish I had found a book like this on the shelf when I was young, and if I get to know some distracted or overwhelmed mothers of pre-teens, I’ll be buying a few copies for their daughters.

From Earthsea to Alexander

To prepare for a recent road trip, I visited the public library looking for a book on CD. I ended up with a whole stack of boxes to take along in the car later that morning and was very pleased with a few of them.

My car was also loaded down with a Thanksgiving turkey, baking pans and tablecloths and some already cooked food, things to contribute to a feast at Pippin’s house. I was taking myself early to help prepare, and Mr. Glad would follow later.

Ray Bradbury

Two slim library cases held one disk each of an introduction to a book in the Big Read program of the National Endowment for the Arts. I was only vaguely familiar with the list and the program, not having any family member that I know of participating. But of the offerings I browsed I was interested in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin because of recent recommendations from someone, I can’t remember who. And Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was a book my reading group discussed a decade or so ago. The recordings were about 30 minutes each.

When I slid the Wizard introduction into the player and the narrator’s voice came into my car, it took me a few seconds to realize that it was Dana Gioia, my favorite book reviewer, poetry critic, and literature teacher. His voice was recognizable, but his intonation was all jazzed up, brighter and more dramatic, I suppose to keep the average somewhat reluctant American reader listening.

His commentary was in brief snatches, and mostly introductory to several other authors who talked about the book, including LeGuin herself, and to short passages read from the text. None of the comments or readings was longer than a minute or so, and most were much briefer than that, which made it easy for me to pay attention; I’m sure this feature was also designed for listeners of diverse ages who are used to having their short attention spans catered to.

The Big Read program is intended to reverse or at least slow the decline in the number of readers in our nation, and I haven’t heard if it is working. But this recording was a wonderful introduction to LeGuin. I enjoyed myself thoroughly while listening to what seemed like a sort of CliffsNotes in audio technicolor. There is music in the background that also adds to the drama.

CliffsNotes (Yes, they do squish the name together like that nowadays) seems to have some videos out, and digital flashcards, but for literature I think these NEA audio files would be much preferable, being a better bridge to visual and private reading activity than listening to a talking head, as I assume the CliffsNotes videos are.

The general plot and themes of the novel were discussed, and the particular skills of that writer. LeGuin talked about her background as a reader and writer and how she developed into the writer she is. Her childhood was spent in an intellectually rich household in Berkeley, where her father founded the anthropology department at the university and her mother wrote a book on Ishi.

There were many refugees from Europe in town then, such that “everyone had an accent.” It seems that her exposure to many cultures nourished her imagination to create new worlds and people groups. The Earthsea books do sound appealing to me now, and if I keep looking at that cover illustration I pasted here I’ll be bound to buy the first one soon.

But the first CD I took out of the box from my library stash was not from the NEA; it was a 2-disk collection of Popular Poetry, Popular Verse, Volume II from Naxos AudioBooks, a broad offering of everything from Shakespeare and Longfellow to Donne and Robert Herrick. It’s not surprising that I didn’t remember hearing most of the poems before  — but I’d like to listen again. The many love poems made me miss my husband whom I had only seen a couple of hours before.

Quite a bit of music was interspersed between groupings of poems. I skipped most of this because I was impatient to hear more poems, and I had no idea how long I might have to wait through the instrumental portions. The poems were read by Tony and Jasper Britton, and by Emma Fielding, all of whose voices and reading were not over-dramatic or annoying in any way. Here are some of the rich words that fell upon my ears:

Prayer (I) 
By George Herbert

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Out of the 5+ hours I was on the road on the way up the state, there were only 10 minutes or so that I didn’t need my windshield wipers. The rain was often drenching, so when I had to stop for refueling and resting I was back in the car lickety-split and pushing the Play button again.

I tried a speech by author David McCullough, his Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities from 2003, but he was very dry, in content and delivery. I have found from Mars Hill Audio Journals that some writers of the most fascinating books are not good at speaking even in interviews.

The last thing I was listening to when I arrived home again the day after Thanksgiving was Alexander the Great and His Time by Agnes Savill. It is nine CD’s and I only heard three of them, but it was the most detail I’ve ever read on Alexander, who is certainly a fascinating ancient man. The descriptions of battles sometimes were hard for me to follow, but overall it was an easy “read” and I’m trying to figure out when I might finish it.

I kept thinking about the great contrast between my comfortable life — just sitting in my heated car snacking on food that I had easily bought at the store — and that of the high-achieving, fighting, indomitable but gracious man who slogged all over his world under the harshest conditions and must have had comparatively little ease in his relatively short life.

Alexander in The Battle of Issus

And the other Big Read disk? That was my favorite of the two I tried, because I still remembered Fahrenheit 451. It was wonderful to hear the author tell how he and his brother would run, not walk, to the library, and spend hours there every week. He started writing stories as a young child, and never stopped.

Here’s a list of books in the Big Read program. I’m planning to listen to more of the introductory recordings, which are lots of fun even if I never get around to reading the actual book.