Tag Archives: artists

Heroes of a Golden Age: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (Audio)

cover image of audiobookEven though it’s about the golden age of superhero comics and comic book artists (the ’30s and ’40s) in New York City, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bawn), won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so you know that  it’s also about a lot more.

Plunging readers deep into the mash-up of art and commerce that was the pulp fiction and the comic book world at the time, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has stories that take place in pre-World War II Prague, where the book’s hero, Josef (“Joe”) Kavalier, was born before he is shipped across the sea to his cousin Sammy Klayman’s mother’s house in Brooklyn, and also in far-flung U.S. Army outposts during the war.

Joe Kavalier can draw; his cousin Sammy has ideas. Together they become an almost unstoppable comic book force, tapping their own unrealized longings to create superheroes who can do amazing things – except fly, because Superman already had a lock on that particular superpower – starting with the Escapist. Joe wants to make money to save his family from Hitler and persuade Americans that it’s time to enter the war, as news filters in about the German army taking over Europe and what is happening to the Jews in Czechoslovakia and other countries. Sammy – in awe of his older cousin’s talents (Joe is also a trained magician and escape artist.) – does all he can to help, hustling for work for them both and working nights and weekends, setting his private, non-commercial work aside year after year. When Rosa, a talented artist in her own right, enters the picture, the two cousins, who are already pretty conflicted and extremely busy with work, have a third person’s thoughts and feelings to be concerned about.

This story contains countless references to comic-book history and legends (I didn’t know which were real and which fictional, and it didn’t seem to matter), Jewish legends, stage magic, actual historical events, and the places and neighborhoods of New York City. Short, pulp-style stories are interspersed to interrupt and supplement the main story, and also humor. So much humor, permeated with sadness. It’s a hard book to describe…

Here’s a review quote from the back of an early paperback edition that says it all:

“The depth of Chabon’s thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness, and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement.” — The New York Times Book Review

At 27 hours long, the audiobook edition – narrated by David Colacci – is truly spectacular, and deserves a prize of its own. (Here’s one it did receive: a Listen Up Award from Publishers’ Weekly.) Joe’s broken English improves over time, but his deeply Czech inflection never goes away. Sammy’s swaggering Brooklyn accent sounds natural and just right for Sammy. Rosa’s voice also hits the right note of sharpness and softness blended together. Watch out you don’t accidentally pick up the abridged version. Somehow, for the abridged version, the book was cut down by two-thirds – making it only nine hours long!

Listen to an excerpt here.

If you’ve already listened to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and liked the time period and the stories of the Jewish families in the book, you might like the audiobook The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, an alternative history of WWII America – read to perfection by Ron Silver.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Chabon, Michael, author
Colacci, David, narrator
Brilliance Audio
27 hours, unabridged

Disclosure: I borrowed the audiobook edition of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay from the public library.

Other opinions of the audiobook (all excellent):
The Audiobookaneers
The Indiscriminate Critic

badge for 2014 TBR Pile ChallengeThis book is the first one on my TBR Pile Challenge 2014 list that I’ve read and reviewed.

“Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again”: Alena by Rachel Pastan @riverheadbooks @rachelpastan

cover image of AlenaDeliberately invoking Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel about a young woman who marries a rich, older man after a whirlwind romance and from then on is constantly compared to the first Mrs. deWinter, former mistress of Manderley – Rachel Pastan’s third novel, Alena, begins with the line: “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.” Instead of a naive new wife, Alena has a twenty-five-year-old curatorial assistant as its sympathetic heroine and nameless narrator. From her lowly job at an also unnamed third-tier institution she calls the Midwestern Museum of Art, she is suddenly elevated to the position of curator of the Nauquasset, an avant-garde museum of contemporary art on Cape Cod. Internationally recognized, the museum is known in the art world simply as “the Nauk.”

The Nauk’s owner, Bernard Augustin – known for his debonair looks, great wealth, and established position in the art world – essentially picks up our nameless narrator at the Venice Art Biennale and, within a few days, offers her the job of a lifetime. Reassuring her worried mother back home that since her new employer is gay, the job offer has nothing to do with sex, she tells her disbelieving and discouraging current boss she’s leaving and steps in to take the place of the glamorous, exciting, creative Alena – the previous curator at the Nauk who disappeared mysteriously three years ago, presumed to have drowned while swimming alone at night, as she was known to do.

 The Nauk belongs to the monied side of the Cape. Lit up at night, the building is an architect’s vision overlooking the water from the dunes. The cottage that the narrator is given to live in belongs more to the service economy side of the Cape; she can’t see the water from the windows, or even hear it. Too late, she wonders what she has gotten herself into.

With intriguing descriptions of art and equally sharp-eyed observation of people, this page-turner of a novel explores the feelings of the narrator as a strained and awkward newcomer in long-established groups – the museum staff, the board of trustees, the Cape’s wealthy patrons of the arts, and the temperamental local artists looking for recognition. Mingling with the salt air of the Cape is the Gothic air of mystery surrounding the disappearance of the enigmatic Alena, whose body was never found. The narrator is dying to know more about Alena, of course, but doesn’t want to appear too interested in her predecessor as she tries to establish herself in Alena’s former position, and prove that Bernard did not make a mistake when he chose her.

Why did he choose her?, she wonders. Another question she can’t ask anyone, certainly not the extremely private Bernard, although she yearns to ask him. At the same time, she wants intensely to protect him from the prying of others, allowing him his private grief over losing his lifelong friend Alena.

Instead of the huge Manderley estate and staff to manage, the unnamed narrator has the art museum and staff. The art world is still a man’s world; the narrator has to struggle to gain her footing in it even after such a leg up. Alena isn’t a re-creation of the romantic story of Rebecca (Bernard Augustin really is gay, has always been gay, and continues to be gay), but more a re-casting of the story in a different form to make readers think about how art resonates.

As for its Massachusetts setting, much of the novel takes place inside the narrator’s head or inside the museum, but there are some evocative descriptions of the ocean and scenery. The narrator is struck by the beauty and exoticism of Cape Cod. In her early morning walks on the bay side, she looks out over the water and wishes she might spy “great whales breeching,” and imagines seeing “wooden ships from the days of the explorers, their sails pregnant with wind.”

Although the setting seemed realistic to me, there’s no museum of contemporary art on Cape Cod that the fictional Nauquasset would seem to have been based on. (It may be more likely that some material springs from the author’s day job as editor-at-large at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Even with its undercurrent of Gothic-style suspense, Alena isn’t intended to be a thriller, romantic or otherwise, although I think there will be inevitable comparisons to Gone Girl. I highly recommend Alena to readers who like the mysterious aspects and psychological murkiness of novels like The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, Half Broken Things by Morag Joss, and The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, and to readers of literary fiction in general. (I think it would make a great audiobook, as well. The Tantor audio edition is narrated by Carla Mercer-Meyer; listen to a sample here.)

Pastan, Rachel
Riverhead (Penguin)
January 23, 2014
320 pp.
$27.95, hard.

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of Alena through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. This book will be released on January 23, 2014.




Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Audio) @HachetteAudio

cover image of Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette, a first novel by Maria Semple, narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite, is a audiobook bargain at $14.98. It came highly recommended around the blogosphere, but at first the story seemed too self-consciously quirky and to hold back an annoying amount of information. I also thought the narrator’s voice for fifteen-year-old Bee (who tells a large portion of the story in her own words) would irritate me. (It seemed too babyish, and I kept thinking Bee was ten years old or so until something reminded me she was a teenager was planning to go to boarding school the next year.) The volume level from one character’s voice to another’s seemed to vary more widely than usual, too – screeches and yells bursting into my ear at high volume and then low conversational tones – so that I found myself adjusting the volume up and down.

But after an hour or so, I settled in and enjoyed Kathleen Wilhoite’s enthusiasm and liveliness. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is her first audiobook narration. It’s also the first one I’ve listened to where the narrator can actually sing. There is one scene in the story where Bee hears the song Holy Night sung at a concert and the author quotes a couple of verses and the chorus as Bee listens, rapt. Kathleen Wilhoite sings the whole thing beautifully, instead of reading the lyrics aloud as I’ve heard other narrators do. She even nails that impossibly high note while having to keep the volume restrained.

Along with Bee’s point of view, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a compilation of documents such as report cards, email correspondence, FBI files, magazine articles, and transcripts of recorded conversations, that slowly come together to form a complete picture of the missing Bernadette — who from one viewpoint is an artistic genius architect, from another a depressed agoraphobe, and from yet another, a crazy recluse and neglectful mother. The fragmented narrative structure can make the story seem to jump around a bit, as it shows readers the same event from several angles. Patience is required from the reader before all the bits of information begin to cohere.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette has a lot of references to Microsoft – where Bernadette’s husband works as a software developer/genius – and to Seattle, where Bee attends the progressive Gaylor Street School. Excerpts from Bee’s latest Gaylor Street School report card appear at the start of the book:

“Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humor.”

“Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic.”

Bee’s excellent report card leads her to ask her parents if they remember their long-ago promise to give her whatever she wanted for a graduation gift if she gets perfect grades all the way through school. (“I do remember,” says Bernadette, weakly. “It was to ward off further talk of a pony.”) Bee excitedly requests a family trip to Antarctica. The mere idea practically sends agoraphobic Bernadette off the deep end. But, loving Bee, and wanting to honor her promise, Bernadette begins to plan for the trip, enlisting the help of a virtual personal assistant in India. Through the documents presented in the book, readers see Bernadette’s panic grow as the date for departure looms, and the once close-knit family begins to break apart under the strain.

If you liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a quirky quest story out of San Francisco about Google and books, you might also like Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which has a quirky daughter on a quest to understand what happened to her quirky mother, with insider jokes about Microsoft and Seattle (minus the fantasy elements of MP24HB.) The humor in Where’d You Go, Bernadette also reminded me of the light/dark humor in The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, with its family dynamic of borderline-crazy parents and resourceful children.

For a chuckle, watch the book trailer of the author (a screenwriter for the TV show Arrested Development) as she tries to explain to booksellers, critics, fellow authors, and random people on the street what Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about.

Listen to an excerpt from Where’d You Go, Bernadette from Hachette Audio here.

Read the AudioFile review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette here.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Semple, Maria
Wilhoite, Kathleen (narr.)
9.5 hours on 9 CDs
$14.98 US/$16.50 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library.

Other opinions on the audiobook edition of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (all excellent):
Care’s Online Book Club
A Library of One’s Own
That’s What She Read
You’ve Gotta Read This

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.