Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Voice from the Other Room

(Audio)Book Reviewed: The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater; read by Will Patton

I've never enjoyed being read to, not even as a kid.  Sometimes, I'll pick up a nonfiction audiobook if I know it's going to be funny and well-read (like a Sarah Vowell book or Tina Fey's memoir).  But despite my love for podcasts and comedy albums, I couldn't get into the sound of people reading me a fictional story.

Well, friends, things have changed.  Forever.

A few weeks ago, I picked up both the print and audibook versions of Maggie Stiefvater's latest YA paranormal-esque novel, the first in a planned series of four.  The Raven Boys came recommended already by a good friend (the ever-dependable and oft-mentioned librarian, Amy), but I assumed I wouldn't have the time at the end of the semester to actually read it myself.  I figured I'd give the audiobook a spin, not expecting to actually enjoy it.  The second it began, though, I was hooked.  I'm not sure who to give more credit to - Stiefvater for writing such a kickass story, or narrator Will Patton (aka the white coach from Remember the Titans!), who made an excellent reader.  Either way, I fell absolutely in love with this book.

Initially, my plan was just to turn on the CD player while I did my hair in the morning or cleaned the ktichen on the weekend.  Instead, my obsession became so fervent that I turned the book on with any chance I got.  Making a quesadilla?  Raven time.  Painting my nails?  Raven time.  By the tenth and final disc, I had run out of chores and excuses.  I turned the book on and paced the house.  I laid down on the floor and took it in.  I sat on the couch for awhile and almost cried.  It's been a few months since a book took me in so completely.  This more than made up for the dry spell.

The Raven Boys hits everything on my teen book must-have list.  Sensible and ordinary heroine?  Check!  Angsty prep school boys?  Check!  Male friendship and socioeconomic-class-related guilt complexes?  Check and check!  I don't normally do books that involve psychics and ghosts and love triangles, but Stiefvater balances the natural and supernatural aspects of this book so artfully that I couldn't help but be impressed.  Blue Sargent, the daughter of a psychic who lives in a house full of other psychics, finds out the name of a boy who is supposed to die soon: Richard Gansey, a student at the local fancy private school, Aglionby.  When she gets caught up in the world of Gansey and his friends - Adam Parrish, Ronan Lynch, and Noah Czerny, things change irrevocably in all their lives.  Gansey and his friends are studying ley lines, hoping to find the spirit of a dead Welsh king with whom Gansey is obsessed.   Blue joins their search, but her ability to increase psychic energies (although she herself does not have psychic powers) makes things more intense and fraught.  This is a dangerous world, and there's no way it won't eventually crash down around these five teenagers.

Despite all the paranormal storylines, The Raven Boys is primarily concerned with relationships.  There's the mother/daughter bond of Blue and her single mom, Maura.  There's the intense and poignant friendship between the rich Gansey and the poor, proud Adam.  There's rough Ronan and the baby raven he's adopted.  And of course, there's the hint of a love triangle between Blue, Adam, and Gansey.  I have never, ever, ever been a fan of love triangles, especially in YA.  But I admit that I'm genuinely intrigued by this one.  The thing that impresses me most about Stiefvater's storytelling and writing is that, despite putting some pretty unrealistic balls in the air, she never lets her characters make unrealistic decisions.  Every terrible, heartbreaking thing that happens in this book feels completely natural to who the characters are and what they've experienced in their lives thus far.  Adam Parrish, in particular, is a well-made character, a product of environment and force of personality both.  He feels like a genuine, struggling teenager, and his friendship with Gansey feels organic, if increasingly shaky (which, admittedly, is part of that organic feeling). 

I really loved this book, both in the story itself and in its presentation via audio.  As I mentioned above, Will Patton makes an excellent narrator.  The book takes place in Virginia, and almost all the characters are natives of the state.  Patton does his dialogue in accents based on where the charcters come from, both in physical and socioeconomic place.  Gansey, with his wealth and power, has less of an accent, while trailer-park Adam has a Southern bite that comes out when his defenses are lowered.  And despite this being a book mostly about a teenage girl, Patton's gruff, middle-aged voice never felt out of place, a trait I found especially admirable. 

I think The Raven Boys has turned me into a double convert: I now can say I like audiobooks.  And I'm most definitely a Stiefvater fan now.  I'm not sure how I'm going to make it a whole year until the next volume in this series. 

Note:  I chose this book as the next read for Book Club Revisited, so you will hear more about in another month or two!  And obviously, it's gonna make my Top Ten list at the end of the year. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Problem of Taste

Book Reviewed: Let's Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson (vol. 52 of the 33 1/3 series)

So when I decided a couple months ago to start reading the 33 1/3 series, I knew I was going to have to get to this one early.  Carl Wilson's volume on Celine Dion's 1997 album Let's Talk About Love is one of the most famous books in the series, and it has taken on a life on its own because of its broader-scope view.  This book is about a lot more than Celine Dion.  It's about the nature of personal taste.  Wilson is adamently a non-fan of Dion and her music, and he spent years thinking that was one reason that he had better taste in music than most other people.  But as he got older, he realized that taste, while still one of the defining aspects of anyone's personality and individuality, might not be a great value judgment. 

Wilson is a strong writer (better, say, than Rob Trucks, who wrote the last 33 1/3 book I read, about Fleetwood Mac's Tusk).  He spends a lot of the book's first half contextualizing Celine Dion as a uniquely French-Canadian artist and what her national identity means to her fans and her nation.  A fellow Canadian, Wilson lays out this cultural background in a way that is fascinating and informative, shining a different light on everything else in the book.  He never makes fun of Dion and whenever he can, he adds stories that paint her in a positive light (for example, Elliot Smith's vehement defense of Dion because she was nice to him once backstage at the Oscars).  But neither does he give her a free pass.  Her music is often boring, overly loud and histrionic, and very sentimental.  Even then, Wilson still contextualizes this mode of music Dion operates in: sentimental schmaltz.  He traces a brief history of sentimental music in modern Western culture, and these types of historical details really add to the book as a whole.

Unlike Trucks, who went on and on about his own life as a contrived device to talk about Fleetwood Mac, Wilson manages his own presence in the book quite masterfully.  He frames the idea of musical taste with his own experiences, from snobby young journalist to divorced, middle-aged man.  Taste helped define him for years, and he certainly believes that taste makes up a large part of everyone's individuality.  But he wishes the us-versus-them aspect of taste could be lessened, and his experiences with hating Celine Dion show just how hard it is to do just that.  He meets Dion fans and respects them greatly, and he finds that he is more open to sentimental music, music that he knows he spent years cultivating a hatred for that might not have been deserved.  There's some really interesting things happening here about the way we can learn to appreciate emotional responses to art.

I liked this book a lot, although I wish I had been able to read it in just a few sittings instead of over several weeks' time in between homework sessions.  I think it would have connected with me even more than it did had I done that.  That being said, I did have an emotional reaction to this book.  As a kid, I loved Celine Dion, and as I got older, I learned to hate her.  And while I can never go back to liking her music, I can appreciate what it is that people like about her work.  It makes them feel things.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Just yesterday at lunch, my friend Katie, a fellow writer, said that she's spent the last few years wanting fiction to be innovative and exciting in form.  But now, she said, "I just want it to move me."  She hit the nail on the head.  While I go to my poetry classes and pretend I just want to experiment and applaud all my classmates for being clever, secretly I just want good writing to make me feel something.  It's what got me into this art business, and it might be the only thing worth keeping me in it.