Archive for the 'Audiophile' category

 | March 4, 2011 10:26 am

In a day where I admit to loving books about giant killer insect men, I thought it might be good to share something a bit more … sophisticated.

The other day, during the meeting of a writing group I attend, we had a wonderful time picking apart a screenplay written by one of the members. We discussed lots of things — dialogue, setting, and whether a movie should begin with a comedic drowning — but there was one tangent I found to be particularly interesting. Namely, “What is involved in crafting a historical scene?”

Whenever I write, I like to get the details right. If you’re writing a  pirate scene set in the 16th century and mention spy-glasses, it’s important to know whether spy-glasses existed. To get such a detail wrong would be a hallmark of sloppy craft. But at the same time, factual obsessiveness can lead to absurdity, like using four footnotes in a paragraph to document Mississippi moonshine. (please, don’t ask). The questions of how to balance good taste with careful craft have been on my mind ever since.

A few days after that discussion, I heard a wonderful interview on the NPR books podcast that addressed many of my questions (in addition to several  others). For that reason, I thought I would share the relevant portions here. (They can be found attached to this posting as a podcast.)

The interviewee is David Mitchell, author of “The Thousand Summers of Jacob De Zoet”, Black Swan Green, and Cloud Atlas.

Audio Interview

NPR Books Podcast: Thoughts on writing historical novels

 | January 27, 2011 8:15 pm

Note: Still working on the book.

It’s funny how the act of writing can take us places that we never intended to go.

When I started this post, it was meant to be an in-depth review of Son of a Witch, written by Gregory Maguire. I was going to talk about the ways in which Maguire touches upon questions such as, “How do you follow in the footsteps of a highly dysfunctional, famous predecessor?”, “What does it mean to have a personal identity?”, and “What does ‘control of your own destiny’ imply?”


Witch and the Warlock, Illustration by Mark Summers. Image Source: For more illustrations by Summers see this post.

But I may have to share those thoughts in a different write-up. This one became something else. Rather than really dive into the book, I’d instead like to focus on the superficial and trivial. Maguire’s peachiness, the general whininess of the titular character, or the unjustified cynicism that pervades Maguire’s Oz will be dealt with elsewhere. Here, I’d like to rant about about something completely unrelated: the audiobook narrator. (And more’s the pity, as it happened to be Gregory Maguire himself.)

Generally, I applaud authors who read their own work. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, brings an added dimension to his arguments in Outliers and Blink. Through his performance of the text, he provides emphasis to key points and makes you feel as though you were discussing the ideas at a dinner party.

Neil Gaiman does something similar when reading his stories. Misters Croup and Vandemar of Neverwhere, for example, become more sinister and disturbing as read by Gaiman. So much so that I prefer the the audiobook version of the characters to how they are portrayed in both the original BBC broadcast and as I imagined them when first reading the book.

Maguire’s narration contains none of this. Indeed, it even proves an important point. The ability perform a piece is not the same as the ability to create it, and, just because a writer can sling a sentence does not mean that he can competently deliver it. (To a rapt audience or not.)


I’ve written about the importance of narrator before. A good narrator has the ability to completely transform a story.

As narrated by Frank Muller, Stephen King’s Drawing of the Three takes on a life of its own. Each character has a distinctive voice and the nuances of the prose positively ring. You can hear the world weary cynicism in Eddie Dean’s voice and the psychosis of Odetta Holmes and her alter ego, “Detta.”

Certainly, the roots of the magic are present in King’s writing, but it really is more than that. A huge portion also comes from the interpretation that Muller chooses to give to the characters. Would Pirates of the Caribbean be the same without Jonny Depp’s shambling, squinted eyed portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow? Of course not, that’s why he gets paid in the millions.*

Muller brings the same sort of interpretive quality to Stephen King’s prose. An interpretation that not only improves the work, but makes it significantly better. In the introduction to the audiobook recording of The Waste Lands, the next book in the series, King said that Muller’s voices were the way the characters were “supposed to sound.” That is high praise.

Unfortunately, Maguire’s performance doesn’t bring the same life to Son of a Witch. Far from it, actually. As read by Maguire, the magical land of Oz feels narrow, populated by cynical and priggish people who are trying to engage with grand ideas and failing miserably.

For example, the lilting and frilly intonations of Glinda make her sound a superficial airhead (which she is); Liir an uninspired/uninspiring nobody with no confidence in himself or anyone else; and the Unionist monts are harrumphing old “biddies” (Maguire’s word, not mine). That’s all the characters are. There’s no subtlety in the performance, and it kills whatever depth might be hidden in the prose. Worse, because this is Maguire reading Maguire, the interpretation feels definitive.

When I read Maguire’s original work, Wicked, several years ago I didn’t feel this bothered. I didn’t really care for it, but I came away satisfied. Again, there was the same tendency toward preachiness, cynicism, and philosophical wandering. But in that case, the work was performed by another narrator and the story populated by stronger characters. This made it possible to overlook the weak spots. Here, I wasn’t able to get past the Maguire’s voice.


Which I suppose bothers me at a more fundamental level.

I hold a few strong opinions about artwork and its interpretation, and one of the most foundational is that there should never be a “definitive” perspective. As far as I’m concerned,  not even the author’s vision is final (even though the writing is a product of their mind).

The reason for this is quite simple. Writing a book is a great deal like giving birth to and raising a child. Though the book may inherit certain qualities, it also becomes it’s own entity. The book needs to either sink or swim on its own merits, and Son of a Witch doesn’t. There’s no room for interpretation.

The vision that Maguire provides feels definitive, and it smothers the potential for flight and fancy.

 | July 14, 2010 8:30 am

Summer-Path_thumb[3]One of the many things for which I use my account is to track interesting books.  Whenever someone sends me an interesting review, or mentions a book in passing, the very first thing I do is add it to the “” wish list.  After all, every month I get to download two new books, and keeping the list stocked ensures that I’ve always got something interesting on hand.

In the (nearly) ten years that I’ve been a member of Audible, I’ve accumulated quite a list.  it includes fiction books and non-fiction books across all genres.  You can find science fiction and fantasy (what can I say, I’m a whore for space ships, explosions and swords) in addition to titles covering history, business, science, religion, economics, New Age enlightenment and genres that I’m not sure I can even put a name to.

(Due to the Audible subscription and aforementioned two books a month, I’m a great deal more adventurous than if I were actually paying full price.)

As I browse the list, I can tell you where most of the books originated from.  Some are from the recommendations of friends.  Others I saw mentioned on blogs.  Still others came from browsing the Audible site and reading the reviews.

But even though I know where most of the recommendations originated, there are a few that I just can’t place.  Logically, I understand that I must have put them there, it’s just that I can’t remember doing it.

(Which means that I shall blame it on elves, fairies, or aliens; because those explanations are infinitely more interesting than merely saying, “I don’t remember doing that.”  Logic be damned.)

Sometimes these books are tremendous surprises.  God is Not Great (How Religion Poisons Everything) was one such find.  I passionately disagreed with nearly every word, and had a marvelous time doing so.  (Plus it’s written and read by Christopher Hitchens, who is one of the greatest essayists writing in the English language.) As was the Historian, a ridiculous vampire novel with spectacular research covering the life of Vlad Tepes, the fall of Constantinople and the destruction of the Eastern Roman Empire.

And sometimes these books are disasters.  Summer’s Path, by Scott Blum, is one such disaster; and it’s not a small one, either.  It’s a full Hindenburgesque monstrosity with plot implosions, brain sucking aliens and everything.

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 | July 12, 2010 4:13 pm

MicrophoneLast month (June 2010), was National Audio Book Month and all over the blogosphere, people were passionately declaring their love/appreciation of both the written and spoken word.  And all month, I intended to join in.

Really, I did.  I was going to publish reviews of several audiobooks (both good and bad); I was going to sing the praises of my favorite authors and ridicule those not up to snuff; and most importantly, I was going to explain how audiobooks helped my love of literature to survive college.

Unfortunately, life got in the way of these plans.  I was simply too busy to join the fray.  But, even though I may not be timely, I would still like to follow through with my plans.

Over the past ten years, I’ve become passionate about audiobooks.  They’ve transformed both the way that I read, and the expanded how I think about literature.  They’ve helped me to see old stories in a new light and find new authors that I would have never considered.  For that, I feel like I owe them something.

Thus, in the next few weeks, I will be publishing a protracted ode to audiobooks.  It will include several reviews, a list of authors/narrators that should not be missed, and a look at the importance of oral narratives.  But before plumbing those depths, I thought that I would first share my own story and explain how I became an an audiobook convert.

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