Saturday, July 18, 2009

Spoken Word

I recently embarked on a road trip down south, some 1200 miles each way, from my home up north in Montreal to a retreat in North and then South Carolina to read, write, hike, connect with my husband, and just relax and renew. We decided to drive... to save money, to see the landscape, and to really feel the change from one place to another, the distances, and because we enjoy the intimacy of the capsule of a car, where we are alone together and no one can get in there with us--unless invited. We also felt the need to ease into the retreat and vacation state of mind and driving for three days allowed for that, rather than, well, just landing.

Hey! What about the kids? Off in camp for a couple weeks. (It's practically a Jewish tradition, send the kids away for a spell, so you can catch a break.)

To prepare for our trip, we visited the Jewish Public Library as well as the Grande Bibliotethque in our fair city, in search of books on tape.

Armed with a half-dozen spoken tomes, a mix of classic and contemporary, we set off on our journey.

What a new and unique pleasure this was, enjoying the view of pastures and farms in Pennsylvania, give way to extraordinary mountain vistas in West Virginia and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, while being told an enveloping story. And what talent it requires for the reader to act out and differentiate each part, without any visual cues, and what concentrated focused attention it demands to really listen and follow the characters and story, more challenging I found, than reading, perhaps because I read for several hours every day.

We kicked off with The Devil's Feather, by Minette Walters, read beautifully by the British actress Saskia Wickham. It's a political and Feminist thriller, well written and of course suspenseful. Wickham did a fantastic job on the characters, both female and male, to her credit.

Next up, one of my favorite novels, The Idiot, by Dostoyevesky. This one was a disappointment because clumsily abridged, and though actor Michael Sheen did an admirable job on the male characters, all of his women sounded like old crones, even the young beauties. (Of course, we should have been suspicious of The Idiot in three short discs;"abridged" was written in microscropic type.)

Perhaps the greatest pleasure was to listen to A Tale of Two Cities, read by yet another Brit, Frederick Davidson, recipient of a well-deserved Golden Voices award. My husband and I both count Dickens as one of our favorite authors, enveloping, moving, funny, delicious, and brilliant, always large-spirited, an extraordinary creator of unforgettable characters. A genius. And who cannot find the spark of recognition in that gorgeous opening sentence: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"... in fact, the entire opening paragraph is luscious in its language. This book was not abridged and I confess we did not complete the dozen discs. A pleasure to look forward to--on our next road trip!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Shout Out To Strout

My favorite writer of the moment is Elizabeth Strout, but she won't be just of the moment, she will endure, she is that good. I love the experience of "discovering" an author who speaks to me, moves me, inspires me in my life and my work, and immersing in that writer's oeuvre until I have consumed every thing she has to offer...for now. I am working my way backward through Strout's books, having started with Olive Kittredge, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

Of course, Strout has already been well-discovered, a well-deserved discovery. I confess: When an author receives a lot of hype, I often recoil, avoid that writer out of...could it be the snobbish notion that anyone who achieves wide-spread acclaim must appeal to the lowest common denominator? Does it have to do with a perverse desire to be an individualist, as a reader, to really discover a writer who has been lost or overlooked? Could it be the pesky green-eyed monster? Perhaps any or all of the above.

Despite these obstacles, I've come, finalmente, to Strout's work. Here I am in the midst of Amy and Isabelle, a full decade after it's publication, long after it's bestseller stardom. And I barely want to take a break from this enveloping read to write this post.

Amy and Isabelle is a mother-daughter story, that begins ordinarily enough in a claustrophobic Maine town, dealing with quotidian concerns, but builds toward a climax as violent and gripping as any Greek tragedy. Strout balances on that tricky tightrope between humor and tragedy. (If you are like me, you will find yourself laughing out loud in parts, your eyes burning in others). You know that experience where you are riding the wave of a wonderful book and only think, my book, must get back to my book, well, that's what I'm feeling about Amy and Isabelle.

Strout captures the complexities and contradictions of the mother-daughter bond, the fierce love and loathing. Though she focuses on the details of small-town life and its struggles and the petty and internecine relationships, there are scenes of such raw power, violence, and longing, they are indelible.

I admit: I am a mother of a 16-year-old, too, though my teen is a boy. I'm blessed to have a girl too, who is inching up toward teen-hood fast. But my admiration and engagement with Amy and Isabelle, with Strout's meticulously observed people and places, transcends that simplistic and diminishing notion of "identifying" with a world or a character. I come from a different world. I am discovering a new world. Strout is making an ordinary world, simple lives, fresh, intimate, unsparing, astonishingly real.

Elizabeth, if you come upon this, I hope you are writing. Don't want to run out of Strout.