Baby’s First Audiobook Experience

January 22, 2010 at 10:00 am (Review) ()

Last weekend, I visited my very good friend Caroline, a car trip that took 5 1/2 hours each way to complete. In preparation (and because my iPod car adapter had died and I don’t have many unscratched CDs) I decided to try out my very first audiobooks.

In general, I’m not a terribly good aural learner. Part of this is just a lack of exposure to aural information; my parents never listened to talk radio, so I grew up believing that audio devices were for music only. I’m probably the only nerd in America who had never heard of NPR before college. But part of it is just my natural inclinations; I took enough education classes to know that different people learn in different ways, and I’ve always gotten more out of the written word than the spoken one. I have a short attention span, and my mind tends to drift — something that isn’t a problem in a choose-your-own-speed medium like reading, but can be a big problem during a lecture or radio show where I can easily miss important words and sentences.

Within the last few years, though, I’ve begun to listen to a few podcasts, primarily in the comic book field — iFanboy, Word Balloon, War Rocket Ajax — and listening to those podcasts has helped me to refine my listening skills while allowing me to compensate for the times my mind still drifts (the rewind function on an iPod is a wonderful thing). So, knowing how much I’ve come to enjoy podcasts, and how much I enjoy books, I decided it was about time I picked up an audiobook.

My choices were limited to my library’s tiny collection, so I was unable to pick up some of the audiobooks friends had recommended, like David Sedaris’ and Sarah Vowell’s self-read collections. Ultimately, I settled on a fully-dramatized audio of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, a play Caroline has been enjoying of late, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, the newest short story collection from one of my favorite authors. You probably couldn’t find two more disparate books, but I thought that was appropriate, because they allowed me to experience different ends of the audiobook spectrum.

Henry IV was my first listen, and it had both its pros and cons. On the one hand, much like stage and screen productions of Shakespeare, the audiobook helped me to follow the story without stumbling over the language. My experience with the text of Shakespeare’s plays is often a slow and plodding one, as I feel compelled to understand every line, using all available footnotes and glossaries. With the audiobook, the actors’ expressive voices clarified unfamiliar turns of phrase, and if I didn’t understand a section of dialogue I was able to move on without tarrying over it, knowing I’d be able to gather all the necessary information from context clues. I only rewound a few sections of the play, and these were all due to driving distractions, since not veering off the road generally took precedence over listening to Falstaff’s boasts.

Unfortunately, without visually-differentiable actors or helpfully-labeled lines of dialogue, it was sometimes difficult to figure out who was talking at any given time. Most of the voices were distinct, and context helped with others, but there were quite a few scenes — an early exchange between Hal and Poins, for instance, or even the climactic fight-to-the-death between Hal and Hostpur — during which I honestly couldn’t tell whose lines were whose. I’m glad I was able to listen to the play, and follow the basic plot, but I know I’ll have to read it or see a stage production before I truly feel that I’ve grasped its intricacies. I’ll likely listen to more Shakespeare on audio in the future, but I may choose to stick to those plays I’ve already read or seen, to avoid the pitfalls I found here.

Unaccustomed Earth was a different matter entirely. Jhumpa Lahiri’s clean, descriptive prose worked wonderfully in audio, engaging me enough that my mind rarely wandered — though in this case, I usually preferred to rewind after a distraction than plod on through, since her language is so great that it would be a shame to miss a single word. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the audio over the written word was the presence of the readers. Jhumpa Lahiri is Indian-American, and her stories chronicle the experiences of Indian and Indian-American characters with depth and authenticity — which means that Indian names, words, and phrases are all present in her work. Though I can usually muddle through reading these words with my own invented pronunciations, I very much enjoyed hearing them spoken properly by the readers, Ajay Naidu and Sarita Choudhury, a man and a woman of Indian descent who read for male and female points of view, respectively. These readers also used accents when reading the dialogue spoken by first-generation immigrants, allowing me to hear their voices authentically, without American accents that would ring false or fake, stereotypical Indian ones provided by white actors. All of this combined to create an experience much truer to the prose than my own reading could ever have produced, and while I only managed to listen to half of the stories in the collection during my trip, I plan to listen to the rest as well before I buy the paper book.

The one small disadvantage of the audiobook — if you can call it a disadvantage — was the way in which it carried me along with the story in the proper order without allowing me to take a peek at the end. I don’t always spoil myself for novels and stories, but there are times, during tense moments, when I like to check to make sure things work out satisfactorily before I continue. There’s one such moment in the fourth story in the collection, “Only Goodness,” and I found myself itching to read a few pages ahead, just to make sure something awful wasn’t going to happen (it didn’t, thankfully). In that sense, the audiobook is much more like a movie than a paper book is, forcing me along its dictated path and pacing unless I choose to go through the hassle of blind and imprecise fastforwarding and rewinding.

Overall, I can’t imagine myself turning to audiobooks in great numbers — they’re great for driving, but without something to do with my hands and eyes I’m sure I’d be much more easily distracted. I can’t imagine sitting in my room with an audiobook playing when there are perfectly good written words filling my bookshelves. Still, I’m glad I gave audiobooks a chance, and I look forward to using them to pass the time during future journeys.

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The Subtlety of Up in the Air

January 15, 2010 at 8:26 pm (Analysis) ()

In an attempt to blog more frequently about things that are not comic books, I’m going to try to make a good faith effort to update this blog more often. Not every day — I don’t have the resolve that my friend Caroline does — but certainly more often than the sporadic updates I’ve made thus far. Consequently, if there’s anything you, gentle readers, would like me to blog about, feel free to suggest something!

In the meantime, I thought I’d kick things off with a brief mention of Up in the Air, which has deservedly been the buzz of the internet of late. It’s a fantastic film, as countless people have said before me, and I don’t have much to contribute that’s unique. The acting is wonderful, the screenplay excellent, and the direction superb. But what really struck me about Jason Reitman’s filmmaking was the way he wields symbolism with a subtlety I envy.

Up in the Air is the story of a man obsessed with severing ties, to human beings and physical objects alike. He spends almost all of his life traveling alone from place to place on business and brings hardly anything with him, and in his spare time he gives “inspirational” talks about emptying one’s metaphorical “backpack” of material possessions and personal connections. With such a setup, it’s a given that 1.) he’ll eventually realize that this is unhealthy, and 2.) some use of symbolism will probably lead to this revelation.

But the fact is, despite this predictability, the film shies away from anything cheesy and explicit, even when the temptation is obvious. In one scene, a character sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” during karaoke. The song plays, with the lyrics on a TV screen behind her, but there are no meaningful cuts to the protagonist or pointed camera zooms when the line “suitcase of memories” flashes onscreen. It’s there, it’s fitting, but it isn’t the focus of the scene. The viewers have to come to the connection by themselves.

Likewise, in a pivotal scene, a character is seen reading The Velveteen Rabbit. When the protagonist walks in, the other character asks if he’s ever read the book. The protagonist nods. “Powerful stuff.” But the topic changes, then, and the story moves on. Anyone who’s read The Velveteen Rabbit — which is a large enough cultural touchstone that most of the audience is probably included in that group — knows how fitting the book is, how its themes of the importance of, and connection to, physical objects are exactly the things the protagonist needs to learn. And in the hands of a lesser director or screenwriter, the scene would have turned into a lengthy verbal exchange about that very connection. But Reitman just lets the book exist, trusting his viewers to understand the symbolic resonance, and continues to tell the story.

Not all films need to be so subtle. I saw Sherlock Holmes today, and the close-up shot of Irene Adler literally “busting nuts” isn’t subtle at all — nor is pretty much anything else in the film. It’s still a ton of fun to watch, and I wouldn’t tell Guy Ritchie to do things differently. But there’s an art to pulling back, to letting symbolism exist effectively without dressing it up in ribbons and neon lights, and I know from my own writing experience that it’s an incredibly hard art to master. But Reitman has mastered that art — or is, at the least, very nearly there — and it’s that artful subtlety that’s the real triumph of Up in the Air.

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Searching for Truth in Teen TV

January 11, 2010 at 9:30 am (Analysis) (, , , )

I’ve been meaning to make this post for ages. It first popped into my head when I watched the phenomenal Freaks and Geeks over the summer, a new entry on my list of shows I’ve come to love ages after they were cut short by the whims of TV execs. The idea found a resurgence in my brain early this fall when I tried to watch Glee, a show that turned out to be very much not my thing, all expectations to the contrary. But it’s taken me until now to finally put it into words:

I yearn for a TV show that will reflect my own high school experiences.

Now, by “reflect,” I don’t mean that I want to watch my own biography play out on the television screen. That would be creepy and unsettling. But much as I love shows about teenagers, and much as I tend to overidentify with all characters who remotely resemble me in fiction, I’ve never found a show that speaks to my own history, to teenagerhood as I knew it. And I don’t think my group of high school friends was particularly anomalous. Despite not being TV pretty (and, really, who is?), we were, in many ways, the outcast underdogs everyone loves to root for, the weird kids and the musical kids and the smart kids who band together in the face of their own unpopularity – just like the characters on Freaks and Geeks, or Glee, or a dozen other shows past and present. But we didn’t fit the picture of normalcy that TV is so concerned with portraying, for two major reasons.

1.) My group of friends was too culturally diverse.

I adore Freaks and Geeks, but it’s hard not to notice, when watching it, that the cast is… extraordinarily white. I realize this is partially due to the setting (the Midwest in the early 1980s, rather than the cultural hodgepodge that was my own early 2000s central New Jersey). But the fact remains that the cast was entirely white, and that this entirely white cast – with, at best, a couple of token non-white secondary characters – is the norm for TV. With the exception of Canada’s Degrassi, I can’t think of a single Western show about teens that breaks this pattern.

I, personally, am white. I’m used to seeing people who look like me on teen shows. But when I can’t see my friends surrounding those images of me, leading lives just as complex and important as my own, it’s hard for me to truly identify with those images. My high school friends were Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian, in addition to Russian-Jewish and Italian and Polish and Irish and Greek and a dozen other European mixes. And we didn’t cherry-pick one person of each ethnicity to be a member of our group. My friends were affected by their racial backgrounds on a daily basis, but they didn’t exist as stereotypes or satires (I’m looking at you, Glee), or model examples to teach the white kids about diversity. If I found a show that gave people who look like my friends the leading roles, and someone who looks like me a supporting role, I’d be much more able to identify with that show than I would with one that made me the protagonist and whitewashed the supporting cast.

2.) My group of friends was too gay.

Between 8th grade and my freshman year of college, all but two of my (numerous) male friends came out of the closet as gay or bisexual. So did two of my female friends. I acknowledge that this makes my group a statistical anomaly; the population percentages shouldn’t produce this effect, even in a group of outcasts, especially since most of these people were friends before any of them had come out, so they weren’t actively seeking out a group of other gay people. I’m not asking for a teenage Queer as Folk — in fact, that would be a terrible idea, because it would make the characters’ sexualities the entire focus of the show. But is it too much to ask for a show with two or more gay characters who are friends and aren’t romantically involved with each other?

Gay characters in teen shows tend to be saddled with a few stock storylines – coming out, parental disapproval, gay bashing – and are otherwise relegated to the background. These stories are important, certainly, and common to gay teenagers’ lives. But why can’t these characters also participate in narratives that have nothing to do with their sexualities? Why can’t they simply interact with other characters, straight and gay alike, in stories that are about them without being about the fact that they’re gay? I may be the protagonist of my own life, but my friends are the protagonists of theirs, and they deserve just as much variety in their stories as I do.

And what of those romantic storylines? Teenage shows – hell, almost all popular narratives – tend to deal with romance a large percentage of the time. As a straight girl, I see pictures of my own romantic ideals all the time, but I can’t help being indignant on my friends’ behalf that they so rarely get to see romances that resemble their own in mainstream media – especially mainstream media about teens. When teen shows have a gay character, that character tends to be little more than a token who never interacts with another gay person or has anything more than an unrequited crush (even in Glee, which is a show about a glee club, for God’s sake), and when I see that, I lose all ability to connect with that show. That’s not the world I know.


I desperately want a show to exist that would not regard these two facts about my group of friends as impossibilities for mainstream television. I also realize, whatever my personal desires, that these are not my triumphs to hope for. Should a show appear, and succeed, with an authentically diverse cast in both race and sexuality, my friends are the ones who will really reap the benefits. It will be their victory, not my own, because they are the people who are really being hurt by this lack of representation. I remain a straight white girl.

But I know that the networks avoid these kinds of shows primarily because they think they’ll alienate the straight, white, middle class young people like me who they (wrongly, but consistently) regard as their primary marketing target. And if my personal experience is anything to judge by, they’re doing exactly the opposite: alienating even the viewers they privilege by refusing to portray the world in which those viewers live.

Make better, truer shows, Mr. and Ms. Network Executive, and viewers across the cultural spectrum will follow.

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