Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes
written and narrated by Sarah Vowell
and featuring the voices of Fred Arminsen, Bill Hader, John Hodgeman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph and, John Slattery
Simon and Schuster Audio
7.4 hours
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Unfamiliar Fishes is the fun, smart and entertaining history of Hawaii, the focus being on the nineteenth century when New England missionaries came to the islands and introduced Christianity, literacy, infectious diseases and, Western ideas like democracy, entrepreneurship and, marginalization. The topics may be heavy; but Sarah Vowell’s wry style of delivery makes this a relatively digestible lesson in history that probably wasn’t covered in your classroom.
Ms Vowell herself is funny and smart; but the novelty of having her narrate her own book wears thin after a little while. Because she includes personal memories or thoughts in the book, she is perhaps the best narrator for her own material; but her shuttered, neurotic clip and even a mispronunciation (“forecastle” should be pronounced “FŌK-sull”) may cause the listener to reflexively tune out as a defensive mechanism. The other voices listed as narrators occasionally pop in with a quote; but nothing substantive or consistent. Sometimes Sarah Vowell reads a quote, sometimes someone else. The celebrity guest roster of contributing narrators is impressive; but really no more than a gimmick and the intrusive edit-ins of their lines is disruptive to the listening experience, as is the music that signals the end of each chapter.
Recommendation: Check out Sarah Vowell on the book trailers, on the late night show circuit and even at any of her appearances on a book tour if you get the chance. She’s funny and delivers her bits flawlessly; but then go buy the print book.
Other Stuff: I bought a digital dnload copy from weread4you.com
This book qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. Unfamiliar Fishes is set in Hawaii.

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A Study in Emerald

A Study in Emerald

by Neil Gaiman
narrated by Neil Gaiman
.80 hours
Harper Audio

This is a short mystery story set in London, 1881, told from the point of view of Retired Major S___ M____ – the friend, roommate and recruited sidekick of the unnamed Consulting Detective featured in this little thriller. The premise of the story is that a stabbed corpse has been discovered in Shoreditch and, the homicide is a matter of national security as the deceased was apparently a family member and friend of Queen Victoria. [How this is a matter of national security and not just embarrassment is beyond me, but the listener is expected to just roll with it…] The whole of the mystery is really a pretense by which Neil Gaiman gets to show off his character creations, Gothic atmospherics and, his own unique strangeness. The fact that the listener of this otherwise-whodunnit is never given the advantage of full disclosure of the evidence is nearly obscured by the smoke-and-mirrors of interstitial “ads,” intimations that the Royal family might be something-other-than-human and, the dynamics between the competing intellects of the characters. In and of itself, A Study in Emerald isn’t much in terms of a mystery; but it could more than ably serve as the opening chapter to a full-fledged novel. The tease of an arch-nemesis in the making is very titillating. Neil Gaiman narrates this short and his voice is appropriately clear, resonate, deep and drippy [reminds me of Alan Rickman, the actor.]

Recommendation: I’m not so sure that A Study in Emerald is a piece that would have you craving for more Neil Gaiman; but it is an entertaining diversion for about 45 minutes. And heck, it’s free! Yes, A Study in Emerald is a free dnload from audible.com! You can also get the print copy free from Neil Gaiman’s web-site too. Neil Gaiman has a rather controversial idea as to the efficacy of free and pirated material on the internet:

According to my notes for the What’s in a Name? Challenge, A Study in Emerald qualifies as “a boom with a germ/jewlry in the title.”

West of Rehoboth

West of Rehobeth
By Alexs D. Pate
Narrated by Dion Graham
Recorded Books
7.1 hours

West of Rehoboth is a story of Black History and Black identity set in the summer of 1962 and featuring Edward Massey – a fourteen-year old African-American boy. An introvert and a reader, Edward is fascinated with Hercule Poirot and the idea of using one’s “little grey cells.” Edward decides to apply his own little grey cells to solving the mystery of Uncle Rufus while on his annual trip to Rehoboth Beach, where Uncle Rufus lives in a shack on the edge of Aunt Edna’s property. Uncle Rufus, a man of drunken and threatening notoriety, intrigues Edward owing to unconfirmed rumors and unanswered questions about the older man. Edward’s investigation leads to a bit of magic that explores Uncle Rufus’ life and an exposition on some of the different ways an African-American can get screwed by simply being Black. Rather than a litany of woes however, West of Rehoboth is a testament to not only survival, but persistence of Black character in the face of injustices.
Alexs D. Pate’s writing is lush and sensual, whether describing the tension of the summer streets of North Philadelphia, the late night air of the beach with its mosquitoes and grit of sand or, the heat generated at his Aunt Edna’s juke joint. Dion Graham’s narration serves as a wonderful compliment to Pate’s writing, smoothly navigating the shifts in point of view and different character voices, as well as the different moods of each scene. Overall, a beautiful production.
Recommendation: Because the main protagonist is fourteen-years old, there may be a tendency to classify this book as Young Adult; but I might caution against a pre-teen or young teen listening to the audiobook without adult mentorship. There are adult themes in the book concerning sex, sexuality, violence (including a murder) and an F-bomb. These elements are handled within the context of the story, which is to say, they are parts of the story and are necessary in the telling of the story; but are not the actual focus of the story. Younger listeners may have questions and a more mature person should probably be on hand with the answers.
Other Stuff: I purchased a used library CD edition from a used book vendor (a library) online.
This book qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. West of Rehoboth is set in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
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True Grit

True Grit

by Charles Portis
narrated by Donna Tartt
6.25 hours

The story is about a fourteen-year old girl who hires a federal marshal to pursue the murderer of her father into the Indian Country of Oklahoma. Strong-willed, self-righteous and determined not to be cheated of the fees she is willing to pay the marshal, Mattie Ross insists on joining Rooster Cogburn on the search. Cogburn is mercenary, hard drinking and, unscrupulous in his work ethics – at once displaying the “true grit” required to get the job done and causing uneasiness among those who are trying to re-establish and define law and order in the wake of the Civil War. The contract between Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn is complicated by the arrival of a vainglorious Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (pronounced “la beef”) who is himself searching for the same man as Mattie and Cogburn. He attaches himself to the posse and the story becomes as much about the dynamics between the three as it is about the actual manhunt. Set in the 1870s, its a Western that stirs the imagination as it is full of iconic images and scenes: whisky-swilling lawmen, a Bible quoting pill of a girl, gunfights and blazes of glory.

The narrator, Donna Tartt, is an author in her own right who *loves* this book, as averred in her short essay at the end of the audio. I’ll not fault her strong Mississippi accent; but she is not a narrator and brings no added value to the production. D.T. lacks the fluidity required to keep the story going, drawing attention to the “he saids” and deploying pauses that even the kindest listener could not interpret as a meaningful or dramatic. There are booth noises, an occasional mouth noise and, some of her words are clipped just a fraction of second too short. This is a quick and dirty production.

True Grit

directed by Henry Hathaway

starring John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glenn Campbell

The 1969 screenplay is truer to the original story up to a point but then Marguerite Roberts (screenwriter) blows the ending so badly it’s painful and, it negates the value of having adhered to the novel’s points previously. The ’69 movie ends much more upbeat than the novel and paves the way for a sequel. The whole of the movie is much brighter than the novel might suggest, reflecting the film-making sensibilities of the times. Dirt, drunkeness and even blood are more inferred than illustrated – giving the movie a “clean” and staged look. The actors perform self-consciously and none of the characters are fully realized. The delivery of the language is very modern in tone, characters sounding more like mid-twentieth century people than mid-nineteenth.

Recommendation: Read the book in print. The audio and the movies all fall short of Charles Portis’ writing.

Other Stuff: I purchased and dnloaded the audio edition of True Grit from weread4you.com The 1969 film adaptation was rented from iTunes and; I saw the 2010 film in the movie theater (Cinemark Tinseltown USA in Medford, OR.)

True Grit qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. True Grit is a short novel set in Western Arkansas and, Eastern Oklahoma in the Indian Territory/Choctaw Nation.

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Shakespeare’s Landlord

Shakespeare’s Landlord

by Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse series)
Lily Bard Series, #1
narrated by Julia Gibson
6.75 hours

Lily Bard is a woman with a past who has made a new life for herself in the town of Shakespeare, Arkansas. As a cleaning lady, she now leads a low-profile existence of working and going to martial arts classes. Then, one night, she witnesses the disposal of a body and her newfound peace is threatened. Fearful, paranoid, physically strong and careful, Lily starts to ask questions and poke around.

It’s a fairly tepid story overall. It isn’t great writing and it isn’t lousy either, though mediocrity can be pretty damning. This has all the elements of a Sookie Stackhouse story, the Everyman heroine/protagonist, the sexy bad boy, the surprisingly hot sex scene and, the intrigue/mystery. In many ways it’s like reading a Sookie Stackhouse novel; but without vampires. It is a solidly executed “whodunit,” though mystery buffs will probably figure out who the culprit is fairly early on. There are no clues or characters delivered “deus ex machina” and everything happens within realistic parameters.

The narrator, Julia Gibson, seems to develop a more pronounced accent reflecting the South as the story progresses; but overall she narrated as competently as the material. The characters were all delineated without hyperbole and her pace was consistent throughout.

Recommendation: If you like Sookie Stackhouse, you might be interested in this precursor series; but probably will be disappointed by the lack of flair in the story. If you are not a fan of the Sookie Stackhoue series or have not read the Sookie Stackhouse series, you will probably wonder if adding a vampire or something wouldn’t help the story . So, yeah, I’d pass either way.

Other Stuff: I borrowed a copy of Shakespeare’s Landlord from the Jackson County Library System (Southern Oregon.) I selected this title for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. Shakespeare’s Landlord takes place in the fictional town of Shakespeare, Alabama, close to the non-fictional town of Montrose.

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RC Cola & Planters Peanuts

MexiCoke with Peanuts

“… the peculiar taste for Royal Crown Cola with Planters salted peanuts…”
(West of Rehoboth by Alexs D. Pate; narrated by Dion Graham)

I was listening to the audio of West of Rehoboth last night and RC Cola and Planters peanuts was mentioned. Stop. What is this? A quick google revealed that in many parts of the U.S. South, dumping salted peanuts into a bottle of RC was a fairly common thing. I say “was” because many of the references I came across were nostalgic, the advent of high fructose corn syrup and plastic bottles apparently ruining the sweet-and-salty effect of the original. I came across slight variations of RC and Planters:  Coke and Lances Peanuts and, even Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew with peanuts; but all recipes were adamant on three points: 1) The soda must have sugar as the sweetener (not HFCS;) 2) The soda needs to be drunk from a glass bottle and; 3) the peanuts cannot be anything other than salted (no dry roasted, unsalted, etc.)

I will try anything at least once so last night I went in search of a glass bottle of RC Cola with sugar. I reasoned that this might not be too difficult as I had seen several sodas recently (Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper in particular) branded as “Throwbacks” (made with cane sugar instead of HFCS.) Unfortunately, the only place that had RC Cola sold them in plastic 2-liter bottles and in 12-pack cans. The only “Throwback”  products were the ones I mentioned above. At one point, I was nearly overwhelmed and admittedly a little put off by all the different chemical combinations that comprise the soda aisles of various grocery stores; but I digress.

So the hunt for a sugar-based cola in a glass bottle continues! Every once in a while a palette of Mexican Coke shows up at our local warehouse grocery store so I expect that the off-chance of getting one of these (they go extraordinarily fast) will be the best shot I have of trying this culinary note from the South.  In the meantime, I should go track down those little snack packages of salted peanuts, so I’m ready to seize the opportunity when it comes. 7-11, here I come!

EDIT: 26JUL2015 – I eventually found Lancer’s Peanuts and MexiCokes readily available and have been enjoying them for about a year 🙂