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Audio Killed the Literature Star - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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September 5th, 2012


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10:59 pm - Audio Killed the Literature Star
Tonight I have a very special double feature! Two works of "literary fiction," one that makes for an amazing audiobook and one that does not. See if you can guess which is which!



In recent years, I've become really interested in the fact that everything you know about how the world works, what it is, you learn. You come into the world all tabula rasa, and if you're taught to shuffle cards one way, you assume that is the way that everyone shuffles cards. How would you know otherwise? Why would you think those shadows on the wall of the cave aren't real? You don't know any better. So of course I was primed to love Room, by Emma Donoghue.

Jack is five years old, and he lives in Room. He has never lived anywhere but Room. He has never been outside Room. To him, Room is real. It is the entire world. There is Room, and there is TV. There is Rug, Bed, Duvet, Wardrobe, Lamp, and Plant. And Ma. And...Old Nick. Although it doesn't become clear in the narrative for a while, the hints are all there, and it's the basic premise of the book, so: he and his mother are captives, his mother having been kidnapped. Jack was born in Room, and Ma has raised him to believe that there is nothing more, possibly to keep him from having a hope of a better world dashed and possibly to avoid answering lots of uncomfortable questions about how she got there.

In a sense, Jack becomes an intriguing social experiment, and it's really fascinating to see how he perceives reality, especially when he considers the reality of Room versus the fiction of TV. There is a hard disconnect for him there: things are either real or they are TV. But...what happens when, finally, Jack and Ma escape? And Jack discovers that the real world is far, far bigger than Room? "Am I real?" he wonders, and it's sad and funny at the same time.

This book is propelled entirely on the strength of Jack's narrative voice, so even when it didn't appear that the story was really moving forward, I was completely captivated and, dare I say it, entertained by Jack's naive, occasionally profound observations. There was a small part of me that wondered if it was exploitative to use this poor boy's horrible situation—a fictional boy, although there is a similar real-life case—as fodder for inadvertent humor and commentary on the world. Because, see, Jack doesn't realize that he's in a horrible situation. The real horror comes from interpreting the statements of Ma and Old Nick and others, putting together what Jack can't. And, yet, it is not a depressing book, simply because Jack is not depressed. He is a happy, joyous child, sometimes confused, sometimes angry, but...he's just a kid, trying to understand things. Donoghue sort of gets to have it both ways with him too, as there are times when his language is a bit more mature than expected, which could be explained as something he picked up from TV or the fact that his education from Ma was completely focused for his five years, and other times when he says adorable things like "melted-y spoon" because he's, you know, five and he basically grew up in a cave.

I highly recommend the audiobook because it has a four-person cast (Michal Friedman, Ellen Archer, Suzanne Toren, and Robert Petkoff) doing all the voices, so Jack and Ma and Old Nick all have different voice actors, which makes it one of the best audiobook experiences I've ever had. The voice acting is excellent, and the scenes in Room where only Jack and Ma are talking made me feel almost voyeuristic, like I was listening in on them.

Room is a wonderful, engrossing novel about the perception of reality and a mother's love. The relationship between Ma and Jack is at the heart of the book, and whether they're in Room or the real world, Jack knows their love is the most real of all.



At no point in A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, is anyone visited by a goon squad. Because—spoiler warning—the goon is TIME. Time beats you up and leaves you for dead.

This is the sort of book where knowing certain things up front may actually result in a better reading experience because you're not burdened by certain expectations. The blurb states that the book focuses on Bennie Salazar, an aging music executive, and Sasha Blake, his assistant, and their interconnected lives and whatnot. This led me to believe that the book would actually be about these characters and their stories. It is not. The book is divided into thirteen chapters, each told from a different character's perspective (perspective, not POV: the book uses first-, third-, and even second-person). Minor characters in one story can become the main character in another, and vice-versa. The stories are not chronological and span the past, present, and future. So the book is more of a collection of linked short stories than a traditional novel, but the links are rather tenuous. There is no overarching plot; that is not how the stories are connected. They are connected by character at times and mostly theme. Each is unique, and some are more compelling than others. There is a much-talked-about chapter told in PowerPoint, and Egan does engage in some "literary" sci-fi, which means that the science fiction is based more in metaphor, satire, and social criticism than plausibility.

These sort of narrative gymnastics would normally appeal to me, but I couldn't entirely get into the book for a few reasons. I kept wanting the stories to actually intersect in interesting ways, but they felt too much like independent short stories (in fact, some had been published as such). It took me several chapters to realize that, no, we would not ever be returning to the events in previous chapters, which left me feeling unfulfilled a lot of the time. Sure, there was a common theme here and there, but I, personally, don't read books just for a theme; I want to follow characters on a journey. Instead, I got partial journeys, glimpses, vignettes. Which, to be sure, were entertaining and interesting sometimes. But I also thought that, unfortunately, I did this book a disservice by listening to it as an audiobook. Roxana Ortega reads the book as if she is reading it to you, word by word, phrase by phrase, without a lot of character or personality most of the time; she does bring a bit more in the first-person narration. This seems like the kind of book that I could have gotten absorbed in if I were appreciating the language on my own, but hearing it aloud didn't have the same effect. Not to mention the fact that the PowerPoint chapter is obviously not as effective.

There is much to like and admire about the book, though. Jennifer Egan does have her clever, witty moments, and I laughed out loud several times. The stories are rather offbeat most of the time. She does make many lovely and haunting observations about the passage of time and nostalgia and everything else related to the theme of the book. And while the stories didn't connect as much as I wanted them to, I did get a thrill every time I picked up on a connection, the little threads weaving the entire book together.

At least it's a better Pulitzer Prize winner than The fucking Shipping News.
Current Mood: stressedstressed
Current Music: The Prodigy - More Girls

(15 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 6th, 2012 01:42 pm (UTC)
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It's not grisly! And it can be very funny and cute at times because the narrator is a kid. I thought it would be super depressing too, but Jack is so adorable that he doesn't even realize how depressing his life is. Pretty much everything that is actually horrible is only implied since he doesn't really understand it.
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From:missquita
Date:September 6th, 2012 02:05 pm (UTC)
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Room is one of my favorite books; I'm glad you enjoyed it. And I'm intrigued to discover the differences between reading a book and listening to a book -- I wonder what, safely assuming any, different opinions and insights one takes away from each medium.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 6th, 2012 02:51 pm (UTC)
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I think an audiobook with a multi-actor cast can definitely add a lot to a book because there is a stronger element of performance there, which makes it almost like an adaptation of sorts. But even if you just have one really great reader like Jim Dale or Tim Curry, it can give you a whole new experience. And some books are better suited to the format than others.
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From:missquita
Date:September 6th, 2012 05:13 pm (UTC)
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I've never listened to an audiobook so I'm still leery of the format. It seems that it takes the book out of my imagination and lends it a foundation that it out of my experience -- an experience given to me rather than formed of my mind from the text alone. Not a bad thing, just different. A step between a book and a film adaptation, maybe. Interesting.
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From:sdwolfpup
Date:September 6th, 2012 02:50 pm (UTC)
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Room is a great book, but I found it one of the most intensely stressful reading experiences of my life. That escape scene almost made me physically sick I was so worried that they would not BOTH make it out. So I always feel like I have to qualify recommendations for it. Heh. Also, I read it when Puplet was still a year old, so I was having very strong Mom-attachment feelings to it.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 6th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
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Ha, perfect icon is perfect.
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From:smrou
Date:September 6th, 2012 10:08 pm (UTC)
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I agree with this. I also agree with P-C that it's not depressing, but at the same time for parts of it I did find it some sort of combination of horrifying, terrifying, and incredibly stressful in a way that I really felt in my gut. The escape scene certainly being the stand-out on that front.

Stressful as it was, though, I loved the escape scene because I thought Donoghue did such a good job of conveying the fear and confusion Jack was experiencing. The experience of reading it was, for me, like one of those dreams where you're being chased by something mysterious but can't get your feet under you to run, or when you do try to run it's like slogging through deep water and you can't really move, and everything's sort of fuzzy and you just can't focus. Er...I don't know if that sort of dream is common, but I used to have them sometimes when I was a kid.
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From:ethanvahlere
Date:September 6th, 2012 04:27 pm (UTC)
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I never read A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I did read another Egan book, The Invisible Circus. It's about a teenage girl in the late 70's trying to retrace the steps of her dead older sister, who was a hippie until, disillusioned by the way the country turned, went to Europe and joined a terrorist group. I had some problems with it - which I can't really get into detail about without giving things away - but it's an interesting, non-judgmental look at the time. It's also much better than the movie (which starred Jordana Brewster as the main character, Cameron Diaz as the older sister, and Christopher Eccleston as Diaz's boyfriend).

And I liked The Shipping News, for what it was (it's also much better than the movie).
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From:thetheatremouse
Date:September 7th, 2012 03:29 am (UTC)
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I love when you read books because it has consistently meant I will then go read and SUPER ENJOY (well, the ones you enjoyed at least...I haven't read any of the disappointing-for-Polter-Cow books after you did).
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 7th, 2012 03:43 am (UTC)
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Yay for enjoying books that I enjoy!
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From:thetheatremouse
Date:February 27th, 2013 03:28 am (UTC)
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So I finally read this, and I sort of disagree about it not being depressing because Jack isn't depressed. I found it incredibly depressing: fascinating, stressful, completely engaging, but also super massively depressing.

The narrative in many ways reminded me of Flowers for Algernon and I really love that because it felt like a very true sense of the world because it was so completely from one character's perspective, and highlighting the characters ability, or inability to understand or interpret what's going on around him AND when he knows he's not understanding but not sure why or how or what to do about it... it's just heart crushing.

Obviously, I was never in a situation even remotely like what goes on in this book, but I so identified with Jack in many situations where he knew that there was something he didn't know, or that someone was reacting to him in a certain way because he was a child that really hit a nerve. Especially when you layer on the added notion of What is real and What isn't, in combination with essentially the Am I getting the real version of things or the kids' version?, all the different levels of wanting to know what is real, or if anything is or if nothing is. Yeah. Nerve. Ran out of words.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:September 12th, 2012 02:16 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for the card! And the postcard!

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