Three Audible Notes from Old New Yorkers

My New Yorker pile may sit for months, even years, but I usually find something between the old covers.  Although I was looking for suggestions for audible books, I did not expect to get ideas from an article on Willa Cather or Adam Gopnik’s 2017 review of Ron Chernow’s historical biography, Grant.

Gopnik’s review of Chernow’s Grant did not inspire me to read the book; I’ll wait for the Broadway musical.  But his reference to “the funniest thing ever written about Grant…James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” led me to the Thurber collection – The James Thurber Audio Collection, read by Keith Olbermann.  Thurber is one of my favorite humorists; I still have a copy of The Thurber Carnival from my college days.51X6jSZbZBL._SL500_

If laughter is healing, this is great medicine.  The first essay – “There’s No Place Like Home” – first published in the New Yorker in 1937 – had me laughing through Thurber’s interpretation of a French-English Dictionary for travelers.  Who knew how funny it could be to hear a translation for asking for directions.  For my adventure loving travelers, the next story is called “The Bear Who Let It Alone.”  I’m looking forward to all the other twenty-two stories.

51BroN3HRXL._SL500_  Touted as the book Cather considered her best, Death Comes to the Archbishop, was the focus of Mary Duenwald’s essay on a trip to New Mexico for a 2007 essay in the New York Times Travel section – Entering The world of Will Cather’s Archbishop.  The story follows

“Cather’s portrayal of Jean Marie Latour (her fictional name for the real-life bishop, John Baptist Lamy) paints a complicated but very romantic picture of New Mexico in the mid-19th century, just after its annexation to the United States…her book provides a realistic account of the bishop’s efforts to replace the lawless and profligate Spanish priests of the territory, his visits to a beloved Navajo chief, his friendship with the Old West explorer Kit Carson and his dream of building a cathedral in Santa Fe.”

51CXbQEFAXL._SL500_Dan Chiasson’s essay on Emaily Dickinson focused on a 2017 publication of the Envelope Poems, a small book similar to the handmade books the poet made as gifts.  Some of her poems, later found on backs of used envelopes, are included in the selection. Because the Envelope Poems include actual transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwriting, with facsimiles of her layout and her process (crossings-out, substitutions, etc.), the book is to seen more than heard.  However, reading the article – Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry – gave me a better understanding of the poet, and had me thinking how nice it would be to listen to some of her poetry.

Audible has several possibilities, one with a collection – Fifty Poems by Emily Dickinson read by Jill Eikenberry, Nancy Kwan, Melissa Manchester, Jean Smart, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, and Alfre Woodard – a 44 minute respite.

I’m listening…

 

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I Am Ready to Listen

My Audible credits are piling up, and I decided to use them all before I cancel my subscription.  Although my library is full of books I have yet to hear, I am not discouraged. Short British mysteries, Maggie Smith and Julia Child biographies have kept me company as I walk, but heavy plots requiring attention tend to collect moss – started, stopped, ignored, replaced by a library book in print.  Flanagan’s Road to the Deep North still lingers – waiting to be heard on a long flight with no escape.

Five credits – five books:

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  1. Joanna Kavenna called Ali Smith’s first in a four-part series – Autumn – “a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities…” in her review for The Guardian.  A symphony?  A candidate for an audiobook.
  2. Recently published Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders has a cast of 166 voices, including David Sedaris.
  3. Since I am number 279 on the library wait list, John Grisham’s The Whistler is a good candidate, promising fast-paced thrills.
  4. Melk Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge looked like a quick way to get life-style advice when I skimmed it in the bookstore, especially coupled with Rinzler’s The Buddha Walks into a Bar (already on my iPod).
  5. Finally (possibly because I have been reading articles about challenging the brain to prevent Alzheimer’s lately), the last book is French Short Stories (in French, of course).

Now I am ready to cancel my subscription.  But wait, those clever marketers have offered me a reprieve – 90 days on hold, a pause instead of a stop.  If I have not listened to my last five books by Spring, I may have the courage to really cancel.

The Bird Tribunal

51ykn975jsl  After reading a review of Norwegian author Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, I had to have it.  What better way to experience a psychological Gothic thriller than to listen to the British intonations of reader Penelope Rawlins.  The hairs on the back of my neck tingled as soon as she started – “My pulse raced as I traipsed through the silent forest…”  But, as the plot gained momentum, listening was just too slow for me.  I downloaded the book to Kindle, using the convenient cloud feature to switch back and forth from reading to listening on Audible.

Secrets are the catalyst; the cautious telling is punctuated with surprising revelations and a nod to Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Sigurd, the brooding handsome landlord with a mysterious past, and Allis, the fragile yet determined heroine.  As the story escalates, the outcome seems predictable, yet the ending is still a shocker.

After being caught in an affair with her married boss (how they get caught is one of the funniest sections of the book), Allis Hagtorn, a television newscaster, travels to a new job as a housekeeper and gardener on an isolated fjord to recover and atone.  Her new employer has Rochester moments of attraction, and eventually the two become lovers.  Suspicion lingers in the air with clues from the nasty shopkeeper’s innuendo to the gulls who attack Allis in a scene right out of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Although the translation offers some strange substitutions in the narration, the author is quick to supply contextual meanings, and the story is great fun – whether you hear it or read it.

Listening to The Turn of the Screw

61biobf7pal-_sl150_         Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has always had a scary plot – no matter how interpreted.  The first time I read this short book, I worried about ghosts creeping up to the  window; later in college, the specter of a mad woman governess who imagined ghosts seemed just as thrilling.  Thanks to a friend who recommended Emma Thompson’s interpretation of The Turn of the Screw on Audible,  I am again convinced the ghosts are real, and the audiobook has me checking the locks on windows and doors.

Emma Thompson easily portrays the new  governess to two angelic children in a remote English country house. She becomes convinced that the children are conspiring with a pair of evil ghosts, former employees at the estate – a valet and a previous governess. In life, the two had been discharged as illicit lovers, and their spectral visitations with the children hint at Satanism and possible abuse. The governess is convinced she must protect her two charges; in her effort to shield them, she traumatizes the little girl and kills the little boy.  The reader must decide whether the ending is the result of a governess gone mad or the evil ghosts are real.

The story is full of dark “dreadfulness,”  and Emma Thompson easily switches from the well rounded vowels of the governess to the high- pitched voices of the children.   Emma Thompson’s terror becomes tangible as she describes the apparitions, and you can almost imagine the silent screams of the ghosts. But when, as the housekeeper, she uses a quavering voice to deny them, the first hints of the governess’s possible mental instability appear.  Which terror is real – ghosts or madness or possibly both?

After listening to the story, I agree with Brad Leithauser, the editor of The Norton Book of Ghost Stories: “Consigned to everlasting misery, the damned are restless in their perdition. Some of them are too nasty for hell, and they sometimes get in among us.

If a book club is looking for a classic to discuss, The Turn of the Screw would be a great selection – especially around Halloween.

 

Say Something Happened and The Country Wife

bud-clipart-mp3_player_blackAs I listen to British radio plays on Audible, I pretend I am walking the streets of London, hearing familiar voices intoning the accent – and laughing out loud with a favorite British author.   The plays are short enough to hear in a sitting – or, if I am motivated, on a short walk.

Say Something Happened

Alan Bennett’s short radio play on Audible – Say Something Happened – confronts the same difficult topic in audio as Roz Chast attacked in cartoon form in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?    

June Potter, a trainee social worker, visits an elderly couple to collect information for a government survey on old people.  Of course, the couple have their own opinions on being old, and turn the tables on June, offering her advice on how to improve her life.  A few sad moments reveal their relationship with their children, and when June asks who would take care of them – say something happened – it’s clear they only have each other.  June’s solution to the problem is hilarious in its typical government approach.

With Bennett’s flair for humor, this short piece will have you laughing and crying, as he addresses the dilemma of growing old.

Related Review: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

 

The Country Wife

This seventeenth century Restoration play  by William Wycherley has Maggie Smith playing the title heroine,  with wry asides and bawdy humor.  Listening to the subtle innuendo, it’s easy to imagine her in a role she made famous on the British stage as Mrs. Margery Pinchwife.

Harry Horner, a rakish bachelor, pretends to be impotent to gain the trust of his fellows and access to their wives.  When newlywed Margery Pinchwife comes on the scene, the action gets fast and furious with disguises and fast exits – as funny as a Marx Bothers movie.  Margery is dissatisfied with her stuffy husband, and tries for a second husband.  You need to listen carefully to catch all the complicated twists, but, even if you miss a few, Maggie Smith will keep your attention.