A is for Awful

A is for Alibi
By Sue Grafton

Narrated by Mary Pieffer

Books on Tape, Inc.

7.60 hours

This was a Sounds Like a Mystery (SLAM) group selection for the June 2010 discussion. I got my copy of the audiobook from the Jackson County Library System. The cover was different and, correctly identified the reader as Mary Pieffer; but this is the cover art currently used both by Random House Audio, Inc and audible.com. This review was originally published on goodreads.com before I had my blog set up.

This is the first of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator based in Santa Teresa, CA. In this book, Kinsey Millhone is hired by a woman (who has been convicted for the homicide of her husband) to find out who really killed her husband. It was okay, except for three problems: Mary Pieffer, Kinsey Millhone and, Sue Grafton:

  • Mary Pieffer (the narrator:) This is an older recording (1993) and narration styles were different then. Attention was paid to verbatim and neutral interpretation of the text. So maybe, in 1993, listeners found this recording acceptable and even commendable; but now, the narration is annoying. The narrator’s voice was colorless and sometimes it sounded like a computer reading.
  • Kinsey Millhone (the protagonist:) Ewww! She doesn’t like dogs, likes the smell of her own sweat and, she likes small, dreary, cheap spaces. She’s supposed to come across as tough, but I thought of her as crass and belligerent. Seriously, by the time of the climatic action scene in the water, I really didn’t care if Kinsey made it or not. Actually, that’s not true. I was kind of hoping she’d get swept out to sea. [And no, I don’t consider this a spoiler since we know Kinsey makes it to appear in 20 more novels to date!]
  • Sue Grafton (the author:) In creating an unlikable heroine who gives the reader/listener no opportunity to invest any enthusiasm for the protag, I am surprised that SG has generated a following of readers willing to follow her through to “U!” In A IS FOR ALIBI, the writer tips off “whodunnit” almost immediately (which makes Kinsey look stupid for not picking up on this) and, has her protag immediately investigate “the homicide of [the accountant]” as opposed to “the death of [the accountant].” Maybe this was all innovative (in terms of writing style and mystery plots) in 1988, but it doesn’t work for me now.

I’ve been told that some titles are better than others; that Judy Kaye is a better narrator and, that I should give the series another chance; but really, I have a ton of other books and audiobooks that sound more appealing, so I’ll pass.

The Things They Carried

“I liked Matterhorn but Best Vietnam Novel Ever? I don’t think so”

In the above rather provocative tweet sent by a book blogger, a
link to a book review of Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) was attached. I dutifully clicked on the link and read a rave review about the book:

“It’s the best novel I have ever read about Vietnam, which is saying something as I loved Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried.”

– Michael Jones for The Huffington Post

Now, considering that it took me two weeks to “get out of the bush” after listening to Matterhorn (narrated by Bronson Pinchot,) I was ready to wholeheartedly agree; but then I realized Matterhorn is the only novel about Vietnam I have ever experienced, so what the heck do I know? Hence, I decided to read more novels about Vietnam. Fortuitously, while I was browsing the porch offerings at the Boothbay Library in Maine (any book = 25 cents!) I came across a copy of The Things They Carried and felt it was destiny that it should be the first book to read and compare with Matterhorn.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the truth of Vietnam, not necessarily what really happened in Vietnam; but stories that show the truth of Vietnam, especially its senselessness. The short story collection (loosely connected by recurring characters) is more about writing about Vietnam than it is about the actual experience of Vietnam. TTTC is metaliterature that allows the reader to intellectually grasp the meaninglessness of the Vietnam War without feeling it in our guts. The stories are illustrations and abstractions of what it was like for Tim O’Brien but the reader is removed from the immediacy of the action.

But maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, the text had no “voice” to shape it, give life to the nuances or the angst of the characters. And now the second fortuitous event occurs in my quest to discover a book that might possibly challenge Matterhorn as The Best Novel About Vietnam: audible.com had one of their member sales! I was able to snag a copy of The Things They Carried (narrated by Tom Stetschulte) rather inexpensively! YAY! My excitement was short-lived however.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien
Narrated by Tom Stetschulte

Recorded Books
7.00 hours

Tom Stetschulte did not seem particularly invested in the text, much less able to color the narrative needed to make the characters, including Tim O’Brien, “pop.” His voice did not exhibit a range much beyond his own more mature voice, so the 18 to 20-something-year-old characters lacked a certain vibrancy and specific characteristics, such as ethnicity. When writing or expressing universals, such as the senselessness of war, perhaps Tim O’Brien and Tom Stetschulte did not think this was important; but the Vietnam War needs the context of specifics to draw us into the time and place. To even begin to make sense of the incomprehensible, the reader/listener needs to be drawn in viscerally, tactilely, to engage as if he were actually present. From there, the mind might be able to grasp the scope of the war experience; but expecting a reader to process the war experience “top down,” i.e academically or intellectually without the feel of the war, is arguably impossible.

Robin Whitten, Founder and Editor of AudioFile Magazine (who, by the way, reviewed TTTC as narrated by Tom Stetschulte and gave it an Earphones Award – read the review here), called my attention to the podcasts that the National Endowment of the Arts produced as part of The Big Read. The NEA/Big Read produced a series of podcasts, each covering a title in their program, of which TTTC was one. I loved the podcast! It contained excerpts from an interview with the author, military vets and, actor Bradley Whitford reading from the book. There were even a couple of cool sound f/x (e.g. the sound of a chopper which moved from the left channel to the right and, a sound clip of The Rolling Stones.) I’m sure Robin Whitten thought that having the background material on TTTC would make me appreciate the novel more; but mostly I thought it was a shame I couldn’t get a recording of Bradley Whitford reading The Things They Carried! Bradley Whitford sounded like he had much more of an affinity for the text.

The Bottom Line:
The writing left me detached and the narration was uninspired.

Matterhorn = 1, Other Vietnam Novels = 0

Other Vietnam Novels TBR: The 13th Valley (by John M.Del Vecchio;) Dispatches (by Michael Herr;) The Lotus Eaters (by Tatjana Soli;) Fatal Light (by Richard Currey) and maybe Going After Cacciato (by Tim O’Brien.) If you have a recommendation for a book (fiction or non-fiction) about the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

Earth & Ashes and; The Patience Stone

Earth & Ashes
by Atiq Rahimi
translated by Erdağ Göknar

In the hyperbole and YA pomp-and-circumstance surrounding the release of Suzanne Collins’ third volume in the Hunger Games trilogy, it would be easy to overlook the release of a slight volume of prose, translated from the French, of a story crafted from the mind of an Afghan expatriate and; while understandable, it would also be equally unforgivable. Atiq Rahimi’s works are not so much as slight as they are distilled quintessences of stories, carefully crafted scenes of both physical and transcendent landscapes. Rahimi’s stories strip out the superfluous in both language and meaning, providing the reader with true abstracts of the time-and-place and the characters. In Earth & Ashes, the story of an older man who must travel with his grandson to the mines where his son (the boy’s father) works, in order to deliver tragic news, the political language that one might expect to inform the whole of the story’s context, the Russians invading Afghanistan, is supplanted by the realty that Dastaguir (the older man) understands: the immediacy of having his village bombed, his having to witness the destruction and survive it and, to try to make sense of what is only tritely explainable. Dastaguir’s world is reduced to a landscape that has been rendered unto rubble, colored by the dust of the road and the soot of the mining camp, a world he must still literally and figuratively negotiate to reach his son, Murad. Along the way, through his dreams, his recollections, through the power of storytelling itself (the story of the guard, the story of the Book of Kings… ) Dastaguir tells us the story of himself, which is not the story of a doddering old man given to distraction as would seem, but the narrative of a man facing the daunting prospect of having to re-write his future history, his future identity, by aggregating his grief:

“You don’t hear the rest of the shopkeeper’s word. Your thoughts pull you inward, to where your own misery lies. Which has your sorrow become? Tears? No, otherwise you’d cry. A sword? No, you haven’t wounded anyone yet. A bomb? You’re still living. You can’t describe your sorrow; it hasn’t taken shape yet. It hasn’t had a chance to show itself. If only it wouldn’t take shape at all. If only it would fall silent, be forgotten… It will be so, of course it will… As soon as you see Murad, your son… Where are you Murad?”

The Patience Stone
by Atiq Rahimi
translated by Polly McLean
narrated by Carolyn Seymour
Blackstone Audio, Inc.
03.30 recorded hours

Last month, while I was on vacation in Maine I was able to receive a twitter feed even though my cell and internet signals were being sucked into some sort of AT&T Black Hole. One of the tweets was from @otherpress, promising advance copies of Earth & Ashes to twitterers who replied. I was extremely eager to take advantage of this offer because I had already read The Patience Stone in print and craved more of the elegant prose of Atiq Rahimi. There is a theatrically and poeticism to The Patience Stone that’s mesmerizing. However, when I read it last February, I had read it too fast! I wanted to re-read it again when I was alone and things were quiet so I could let the novel’s own rhythm set the pace; But I’m a wife and mother with a full time job and finding that alone/quiet time was proving to be rather difficult. So for the “re-read,” I opted to listen to the audiobook. This time there would be no skimming words! I borrowed a copy from Blackstone Audio, Inc. and listened to it prior to reading Earth & Ashes.

The Patience Stone (which is actually Atiq Rahimi’s second novel; but the first to be published in the U.S.) shares stylistic qualities with Earth & Ashes: the “word reduction” process (like wine reduction) that leaves the full flavor of the setting and the characters without the impurities; the limited venues that showcase the main actions (both external and transcendent;) the importance of storytelling and; the pathos of the main characters which, while by definition evoke pity or sadness, provides the core of the character’s transformation and should not be misconstrued as a weakness.

The Patience Stone is about a woman who is caring for her husband, who appears to be in a vegetative state. In the beginning of the novel, she repeats prayers pro-forma in the hope of aiding in her husband’s recovery. Eventually, as no change in his condition registers, she abandons the prayers and starts confiding, and later confessing, … things. The name of the novel comes from the practice of telling one’s secrets and worries to a black stone (the Kaaba or a miniature version.) When the stone can take no more, it explodes. In practice, the woman’s husband becomes a patience stone.

The setting, as identified in the epigram, “Somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” speaks to the theatricality and the universality of the novel, a level of abstraction flavored with the Middle-East. The action takes place in one room in a home; the woman sometimes goes off-stage; the woman’s off-stage and, interior lives are revealed through a series of monologues (ostensibly dialogues as she is speaking to her husband;) but by refusing to fix any of the place(s) or people with names, the author invites the reader to think outside of the (black-) box (theater) that he has constructed and focus on the woman’s drama as she reveals the complexity of her life that happens to belie who we think she is as a Middle-Eastern woman. Once again, as in Earth & Ashes, the story of the main character is told through their dreams, recollections and other stories and; once again, the character must re-write their story using their pathos as the building material.

I was somewhat conflicted about listening to the audio. Carolyn Seymour has a wonderfully rich and expressive, but decidedly British voice. There was a part of me that wondered if removing the Middle-Eastern sensibility from the voice was going too far in the abstraction process or; whether it added to the commitment of making the novel more universal. I also got a different sense of timing from the audio reading than I did from the print. I didn’t hear the rhythm of the breathing, the telling of the beads or; sense the time as measured by the mullahs calls to prayers as much as I imagined I did when I read it the first time. Carolyn Seymour’s pace was faster, though I didn’t miss any of the details. Whether in print or in audio, and regardless of the translator, Atiq Rahimi’s writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. Great things do come in small packages.

Crush It!

Crush It!: Why Now is the Time to Cash in on Your Passion

Written and narrated by Gary Vaynerchuk
Harper Audio
3.70 RH

Gary Vaynerchuk spoke at APAC/BEA in NYC (in May) and my boss, Josh Stanton, attended the packed/SRO event. I’m not exactly sure what Gary said in his speech, but Josh came back charged with enthusiasm for social media. Upon his return to Ashland, OR, Josh approached me with a vague proposal about me handling social media for the company I work for (Blackstone Audio, Inc.) and encouraged me to read Gary Vaynerchuk’s book, CRUSH IT! I actually dnloaded the book from audible (it’s not an audio that our company carries – and no, the irony does not escape me there) and I have to tell you that I’m pretty sure Josh would not have recommended this book if he had actually read it himself! This is not a handbook for corporate types seeking to get rich quick using Facebook and Twitter. It is, however, a guide encouraging individuals to consider using the many social media platforms at their disposal to recreate their identities in the business world by hewing closer to their own passions.

Crush It! is, in equal parts, autobiographical, informational and motivational. The audiobook chronicles the success of Gary Vaynerchuk’s endeavor to promote wine via social media tools (check out tv.winelibrary.com) and the correlative success of his family’s discount liquor store. Success stories such as Mr. Vaynerchuk’s are essential to the promotion of the book’s premise to prove that he isn’t blowing smoke up your chimney. He is the living proof that the approach works.

The information that should be gleaned from Crush It! is not about the specific social media platforms that Gary Vaynerchuk used in his success story (“do what speaks to your DNA!” and, moreover the specific platforms that he used may be passé by the time you get around to launching your own social media campaign,) but the overall business strategy of using social media to sculpt your identity in the business world. Gary Vaynerchuk inspires the listener to abandon traditional (and soon to be obsolete) business models and practices, to work on branding yourself, to monetize your passion and to go on to live a happier and enriched life. Listen to the audiobook, but don’t get too caught up in taking notes. There is an Appendix A near the end of the book that you can transcribe if you need to.

Gary Vaynerchuk often goes off-script (“that’s how he rolls”) and the result is a much more personable presentation than what the print edition has to offer. I like that; but that said, Gary Vaynerchuk comes across has not merely impassioned, but a bit hyper. His evangelistic zeal is an acquired taste, though I can definitely see how a live presentation would get an audience all fired up (After listening to the audio, I was ready to roll!)

The New Adventures of Mickey’s Spillane’s Mike Hammer

The Sounds Like a Mystery (SLAM)Yahoo! group has issued a mini-challenge:

“Keeping with our geographic theme, pick 4 books to read between now and the end of the year all set in New York.”

I’m in! The first of four titles:

The New Adventure of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

by M.J. Elliot & Cerney (sp?) two of the writers from the TV show;
Performed by a full cast, starring Stacy Keach, who starred in the TV show in the 1980s
Blackstone Audio
2.7 hours

I picked this title in the SLAM State Challenge (NY) because 1) it is a mystery;2) it is set in NY (locations include but are not limited to: Wall St.,Fulton Street subway station, Brooklyn Heights and Long Island)and;3) Every once in while I go for something different than straight forward narration and grab a full cast production.

THE NEW ADVENTURES OF MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER features two stories: “Oil and Water” and “Dangerous Days.” “Oil and Water” is about the reunion of Mickey Spillane with a former flame, an investigative reporter working on a story about an oil company and a vanished tanker. “Dangerous Days” is about a young woman’s connection to a young Middle Eastern man identified by the government as a terrorist threat. The plot lines are basic linear narratives which rely on sound f/x for mood and setting. Anyone familiar with noir mysteries knows immediately who the villain is, so the “whodunit” component is a no-brainer. Without that (the “whodunit” challenge) though, the stories are reduced to little more than a showcase for Stacy Keach. Now, Stacy Keach IS Mike Hammer and he delivers Mike Hammer BUT: The writers of this production attempt to make Mike Hammer relevant by setting the stories in the 21st century. However the language is awkward and forced (e.g. “google” is colloquially used as a verb, not a noun; i.e. you google something, you don’t look something up on google.) The sound f/x are sometimes anachronistic (e.g. Mike Hammer pulls into a self serve gas station and the “ding-ding” bell that alerted gas station attendants to hustle out to the customers rings.) [Now I live in a state that has no self-serve gas stations and even I haven’t heard that bell in decades!:] But that could be overlooked and/or forgiven except for other production issues which include odd and protracted pauses (“Dangerous Days”) and a double take. Also, the engineer who filled out the metadata filled out the fields incorrectly AND mis-spelled “Spillane.” It’s that inattention to detail that is irksome. That said, the overall production values were better than most full cast “radio-style” dramas being currently produced. Unfortunately that’s not enough to bring in any new fans to the Mike Hammer franchise; or appeal to long time fans either. There is a THE NEW ADVENTURES OF MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER, vol. 2 and THE GOLIATH BONE available, but I think I’ll pass.

Audiobook Review: Matterhorn

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
By Karl Marlantes
Narrated by Bronson PInchot
Ⓟ 2010, Blackstone Audio, Inc.
20.4 hours


I picked this title up because of the helicopter on the cover. Yep, that’s right, I let cover art influence my reading choice! There is something about a helicopter in flight that evokes excited feelings of hope, rescue and relief. If I were a different kind of person, I might feel the same way about an image of a Prince Charming on a white charger, but I’m not and so there it is. I do not generally judge a book by its cover, but in this case, the helicopter was the siren song that seduced me into choosing this title. The only question that remained was whether I would read the book in print or, listen to it in audio.
That question was answered when the narrator was in Ashland, OR and my husband and I took him out to dinner. During the course of the dinner, Bronson was asking about “the Columbus book.” It was explained to him that the book was WAITING FOR COLUMBUS (by Thomas Trofimuk; narrated by Grover Gardner) and that, while recording the book, Grover had become so emotionally enmeshed with the text that he actually broke down during the studio sessions. Bronson then said that he had had the same experience while narrating MATTERHORN and, that was what decided it for me. That kind of narrator engagement and response to a story is rare and always something special.
So, I pulled a copy from Blackstone’s warehouse and I spent the next couple of weeks listening to one of the best audiobooks I have ever heard, finishing late on a Saturday night. At the beginning of the audio I took the time to draft out a chart of the characters. You can see the Command Structure/List of Characters if you “Look Inside” the book on Amazon.com or you can draft out your own chart within a couple of minutes (I drafted first and compared.) After having written it down, it was pretty much set in my mind. I referred to it once after that to scribble a note about Lt. Col. Simpson (sometimes, Lt. Col. Simpson was referred to as “Big John Six” and other times just as “Big John.”)
Anyway, this is why you should listen to MATTERHORN:
  • Excellent writing: From the opening lines to the close of the novel, the author immediately and effectively places the reader/listener in Vietnam, 1969. The imagery is evocative without dipping into superfluous metaphor and, the scenes resonate with physical and psychological detail;
  • Excellent narration: I had one small gripe about the narrator which was that the first three of four times he says the word “gook,” he pronounces it to rhyme with “book.” The rest of the time, he pronounces the word to rhyme with “kook.” Both are correct, but the inconsistency bothered me. The times he pronounced “gook” like “book” I was taken out of the story. But outside of that, I would have to say the narration was flawless. Bronson channeled the characters and the material so effectively that he literally disappeared into the book and the characters spoke (and BTW, “Balki” does not make an appearance in any way, shape or form!)
  • For the veterans: I’ve read a lot of the customer reviews posted for both the print and audio editions of this title. A lot of Vietnam veterans seem to love this book, clearly believing their story has finally been told. This book is fiction; but clearly it’s “true.” Without having read the reviews though, you would know it. There is an honesty in the writing that comes through.
  • For everyone else: There’s a old adage about not judging a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. This book forces you to hump 6 clicks in a Marine’s boots. This book does what the very best of books do: enables the reader to see another point of view. There’s a great scene in the book wherein Jackson, a black Lance Corporal explains to Mellas, a white Second Lieutenant, that he (Jackson) could no more explain what it’s like to be black to Mellas than either of them could explain what its like to be in the bush to civilians. The irony is of course, is that Marlantes has explained what’s its like to be in the bush. Readers/listeners will feel like they were with Bravo Company every step of the way.
I never know which books are going to deeply resonate with me and when they do I really don’t know why. I’m a middle-aged overweight mother in the the Northwest. I have had no military experience and no one in my family served (my father’s experiences in WWII are a different kind of story.) Anyway, Matterhorn really affected me. The first night after I had started listening to the audio, I woke up in the middle of the night, more than a little panicky, slightly sweating and attacking the leech on my leg. OK, it was really a Band-Aid, but it never knew what hit it!
After finishing this audiobook, I spent a week still “in the bush” and another week trying to find another audiobook to listen to (after you listen to something this amazing, everything else sounds like dreck!)
Highly recommend to absolutely everyone.