Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Man Who Quit Money

Don't be afraid of this book! It's not a judgemental, do-as-I-do morality shakedown. It's really a lovely story about a man who struggled to find his own path in life, and along the way we get to open our minds a bit about money, debt, the "American dream," religion, sexuality and other pertinent issues. This story has had remarkable staying power since its initial publication in March of this year. Two weeks ago there was a resurgence of interest when David Suelo was featured in an ABC News report. The reactions to his story are fascinating, veering from admiration and sympathy to overt hostility and accusations of "freeloading" and "mooching." It's pretty interesting to read the comment section of just about any online story relating to the book and its protagonist.

I became aware of the book a month ago after seeing a lot of references to it on the blogs I frequent. I was amazed that there was no audio, so I recommended it to one of my clients, who promptly picked up the rights, and we all set to work on it. It should be appearing on Audible within the next couple of weeks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Passage of Power

 I don't have a lot to say about the long-awaited fourth volume in Robert Caro's spectacular biography of Lyndon B. Johnson--well I do, actually, but not in terms of anything the book reviewers haven't covered. But it was as delicious a project as the first three volumes and I am extremely grateful to have once again been a part of publishing history by narrating this profoundly interesting and stimulating book. Members of the official Grover Gardner Fan Club (who number in the single digits and meet once a decade to share dull stories, bad jokes and dirty martinis) will recall that I narrated the three previous volumes in this series. Volumes 1 and 2 are currently OOP in audio, though I recently got some tanatalizingly vague correspondence to the effect that this situation might be corrected. Volume 3, Master of the Senate, is going strong (and stronger now) on Audible, and the current volume is assured a spot on the best-seller list for some time to come. Suffice it to say that if you have an interest in American history and politics and have not read these extraordinary books, wait no longer. It helps to read them in order but it's not a pre-requisite.

Caro is a brilliant, dramatic, propulsive writer and these come as close to "true-life" political thrillers as anything you care to name. He also writes the longest sentences this side of Faulkner, and the twenty-five year gap between the first volume and the current one has taken a not-unexpected toll on this narrator's ability to negotiate paragraph-length stretches between periods without resorting to supplementary oxygen. A typical sentence might go something like this:

Johnson knew he couldn't simply ask for the money; he knew he had to wheedle, cajole, prevaricate ("simply lie," as one long-time associate confirmed--"Lyndon just couldn't bear the thought of begging, it was anathema to him...") in order to obtain the funds that were not just necessary, not just critical to his campaign, but were a matter of life and death if he were to ever obtain the dream--the dream that had driven him since his teenage years, the dream that, in the words of another former assistant, "drove him relentlessly night and day, like a whipped horse dragging an overloaded cart"--of one day achieving, on his own and without anyone standing in the way, the highest office in the land, the office of President of the United States.

Okay, I made that up, but it's pretty close. Caro has a unique, sometimes hammering style that can seem overly dramatic, unless you commit to it and make it work. He employs a wealth of literary devices to drive home his points, and huge parenthetical digressions are nothing to him. It's his way of packing tremendous amounts of information into the text, as well as ramping up the tension in critical circumstances.

I'll leave it at that for the moment, but there's a larger point I wanted to make, one that will become apparent to you if you read this wonderful, moving profile from Esquire magazine. Recently there's been a lot of talk about the future of the publishing industry--self-publishing, e-books, predatory pricing, law suits, and so forth. There's a sense that the industry is in crisis, and that the old publishing models are dying out. I fully believe that there's all sorts of room for new publishing models. But I want you to read that profile I linked to, and ask yourself if the new models would accomodate the sort of majesterial project that continues to pour from the pens of people like Robert Caro. I recently argued as much in the comment section of some blog or other, and one person responded, "Hey, let him raise money on Kickstart!" Can't you just see it? Young Robert Caro raising money for a forty-year biography project on Kickstart! Some sample entries from his blog, lbjgenius.blogspot.com:

  June 7, 1973--Raised $10K on Kickstart for my first interview!! Flew to Texas to interview Lady Bird but she wouldn't see me. WTF??? Maybe I can ask someone at the LBJ Library to let me look at some documents while I'm here, so I don't waste the plane fare... 

 February 20, 1974--Got another $2K on Kickstart to buy some supplies and a typewriter, and keep the landlord happy for another month. Bus fare to California was pricey, but got some great interviews. Maybe good for a chapter or two. Slow going, though. Will probably have to get a part-time job to keep the proverbial wolf from the door.  Wife sick of sardines and crackers...

 August 12, 1976--Yea!! Another $5K from Kickstart. Able to make three trips to interview former Dems in WV! Three whole hours of research, can't wait to craft another chapter!

You get the idea. If publishing as we know it dies, I fear for the fate of the sort of books that have changed lives, enriched minds and helped document the great events of our time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Once an Eagle

Last summer I noticed this massive, 1400-page novel mixed in with a batch of non-fiction war books Blackstone had acquired for the military market. The title rang a bell so I did a little research and realized we had a gem on our hands. Anton Myrer's sprawling 1968 novel could fairly be considered the Atlas Shrugged of the Army set. It embodies a code of living held dear by those who have devoted their lives to the defense of our country. It was made into a TV mini-series in 1976, starring Sam Elliot and Glenn Ford. The corny title aside, it's a big-boned, raw-knuckled epic in the tradition of Guthrie and Wouk, with a dash of Stegner's thoughtfulness thrown in for good measure. The writing is solid and well-crafted, the characters sharply etched and unforgettable, the conflicts neatly delineated and convincingly played out. The battle scenes are authentic and thrilling to read. In short, it's just the sort of book I love to sink my teeth into.

Once an Eagle follows the career of Sam Damon, a smarter-than-average Nebraska farm boy possessed by a burning desire to do "great things." On the eve of America's entry into World War I, he boldly seeks a coveted slot at West Point, but when circumstances intervene to deny him this opportunity, he decides to enlist in the Army. Blessed with native intelligence and a talent for strategic thinking, Sam's particular gift lies in his instinct for "the right thing at the right moment," a sort of sixth sense that kicks in when it appears that all is lost. This instinct comes into play when, in a stunning reversal of fortune, he rallies his decimated unit and turns a hopeless situation into a significant victory for the Allies. While his heroic actions garner him a medal, a promotion and a general's daughter for a wife, they also mark him as man who isn't prone to toe the line when it comes to shoddy orders and inept leadership.

The war over, Sam decides to make a career of the service, even though he's warned that "the war to end all wars" will render the Army obsolete. Sam feels otherwise, his experiences during the war having given him a glimpse of mankind's thirst for violence and conquest. The next two decades are filled with drudgery and frustration, but Sam uses the time to polish his leadership skills and devotes himself to intensive study. A plum assignment to China offers him a glimpse of the new face of war, but creates a rift with his family that proves difficult to heal. When, inevitably, war looms on the horizon again, Sam has established a firm bond with his unit and cultivated friendships with fellow officers that prove crucial in the coming conflict. On the other hand, his sense of justice and his refusal to "play the game" will have devastating consequences, for himself, his family and those closest to him.

Myrer served briefly in World War II and wrote a number of fine novels, among them The Last Convertible, a moving tribute to the "greatest generation" and an elegy, of sorts, for the "New Frontier" in American life and politics, which was also made into a mini-series in 1979.
Once an Eagle is a splendid saga, hard to put down and filled with terrific action and plenty of emotional heft. Don't be put off by the length--if you like The Winds of War, you'll definitely enjoy this one.

If you're interested in learning more about the book and it's popularity with military buffs and professionals, you can visit this excellent website maintained by Tom Hebert.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Defending Jacob

I've rarely enjoyed narrating anything as much as I enjoyed narrating William Landay's Defending Jacob. The writing is superb, the plot twists compelling, and the courtroom aspects of the story are especially well handled. (I don't have to tell you how many so-called "legal thrillers" make a hash of the law.) But more than that, the nature of the first-person narrative afforded me the chance to explore an emotional range that I don't often get to do.

Andy Barber is a man with a story to tell--a complicated story, a terrible story that he both wants to tell and doesn't want to tell. He has to tell it--to a grand jury investigating the aftermath of a tumultuous murder case on a small, upscale Massachusetts suburb. He wants to tell it--to set the record straight as well as find some sense of closure for himself. But he also knows that it's going to be difficult for anyone else to understand--or even believe--what happened and why.

Complicating this act of self-revelation and confession is the fact that Andy, by his own admission, has some serious credibility issues. As the story progresses, we learn that he is very adept at withholding information--from his colleagues, his friends and his family. The question becomes what, if anything, he is withholding from us.

When I spoke with Landay for Blackstone Audio's series of blog interviews, he immediately took exception to my use of the term "unreliable narrator." Landay pointed out, rightly I think, that Andy is reliable--as reliable as he can be, given that he's confronted with a series of wrenching emotional dilemmas. It's not that he isn't telling the truth, but there's something about the way he chooses to parcel out the story that keeps the listener in a state of constant uncertainty about what is really going on.

Few things are quite as satisfying for an actor as the chance to portray a flawed character, one who forces the the audience to continually reexamine its loyalties. Defending Jacob offered just such a chance and I'm grateful for the opportunity. Regardless of whether you're a fan of the courtroom genre or not, Defending Jacob is an exceptionally good novel from any point of view.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Return of The Stand

Well, it's out on Audible today--Stephen King's The Stand. This is not the edited version I recorded twenty-five years ago, it's the complete, uncut edition published in 1990, all forty-eight hours of it! It took four weeks to record, and I had to pace myself so I wouldn't sound fatigued or thread-bare at any point. I'm pleased with the recording, though I'll be interested to see how it holds up against the earlier version in the memories of King devotees. The old version was only available on cassette and has been out of print for a decade or more. I still get emails from people asking if I have a copy they could borrow and duplicate for themselves. Alas, no, I never got one. But now there's no need. The new version is complete, and in my humble opinion I'm a better narrator than I was twenty-five years ago, so I was delighted to have a chance to re-record it.

There are few better writers for audiobook narration than Stephen King. He gives you all the right cues, creates wonderful characters, keeps the story moving and injects emotional twists and surprises at every corner. Never a dull moment in the booth with this guy.

The odd thing is, as I read the uncut version in preparation, I found that I remembered very little of the story and the characters. The opening scene remains vivid--the clunky old Chevy containing the first victims of the superflu plowing into a lonely little gas station in rural Texas. And I remember Randall Flagg (who could forget Randall Flagg?). But beyond that most of the book felt completely new to me. Perhaps it was the added material that threw me off, I don't know. But it's just as well, since there was no temptation to replicate any voices or characters or moods from the earlier recording. What you hear is as fresh as last month, not a recycled rendition from 25 years ago.

I'll be interested to see what "the critics" say. The proponderance of male characters seemed to hail from the Midwest or Southwest, so there were an awful lot of "good ol' boys" to sort through and make distinguishable. The most difficult characters for me were Harold and Frannie. Harold is a pimply, overweight, pompous-sounding 16-year-old, not an easy person to replicate. And eighteen-year-old Frannie is the emotional core of the book, enormously smart and feisty, but extremely vulnerable--and pregnant. I played around with a Maine accent for her and it sounded just awful, so I let my native East Coast tones predominate. A fifty-five year old man is already handicapped in this regard, and I didn't want her to come off as a caricature. So she's voiced in a pretty straight-forward manner. I gave her father and some of the other Ogunquit characters a dose of down-east, so hopefully that will placate the die-hards.

My favorite character, of course, is Tom Cullen (who doesn't love Tom Cullen?). In the uncut version he really gets fleshed out, and it's truly wonderful to experience his transformation from a fool to a hero. In one critical scene I took a risk that, under normal circumstances, I would have avoided like...well, like the plague. But to do other than what I did seemed like such a cop-out that I took the plunge. I'm curious to see if anyone even notices--and whether they like it or hate it.

But by far the biggest, most overwhelming challenge, of all the challenges in a story so fraught with them, was that of coming up with seventy-plus ways of saying, "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" It seems that every character, at some point in the book, shouts or screams or bellows or rasps the word, "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

Anyway, it was a terrific experience and it's great to have the story out there again for everyone to enjoy.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Little Mozart 4 U

It was something of a revelation to me, six months after moving from an inner-city DC neighborhood to quiet little Medford, that I could listen to music while walking the dogs at night. That might not seem like much of a revelation, but as a music lover and audiophile with an eight-year-old running around the house, there isn't a whole lot of time for extended listening in a quiet place. The problem in the city, of course, is that you sort of want to stay alert to what's going on around you. Our old neighborhood, while very pleasant and convenient, wasn't immune to the occasional mugging or car-jacking. Walking around at night with earbuds inserted, oblivious to one's surroundings, wasn't exactly advisable. It took me a while to realize that in Medford I don't need to be looking over my shoulder all the time. This has freed me to get some quality listening done while strolling through our peaceful suburban enclave, gazing at the stars.

While I often listen to new acquisitions, I also poke through my CD library to revisit old favorites I haven't heard in a long time. Thus it was the other night that I heard again one of the most thrilling classical recordings in my collection, and I thought I'd share it with you. Lots of people enjoy Mozart, especially the piano concertos, but many are not familiar with some of the great historical recordings in this genre.

Walter Gieseking was one of the most extraordinary pianists of the previous century. German by birth, he made a name for himself as one of the foremost proponents of French piano music--notably the works of Debussy and Ravel. What distinguished Gieseking's recordings was his refusal to indulge in excessive pedaling, relying instead on an extremely subtle sense of touch and fingering to convey the delicate, impressionistic sounds wrought by these composers. The effects he achieved were magical--instead of drowning in a wash of sound, the music emerges with crystalline clarity and precision.

Though noted mainly for his recordings of the great impressionists, he also excelled at Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and others. His recordings of Grieg, Mendelssohn and Schumann are still considered by many to be without peer.

Gieseking was a fascinating character. His staggering technical prowess came so naturally to him that he disliked practicing and preferred to devote his energies to reading, composing and collecting butterflies (he was a noted lepidopterist and discovered several species which were named after him). He had a photographic memory and could memorize an entire concerto during the train ride to a concert and play it flawlessly that same night. This casual approach sometimes betrayed him and, depending on his mood or health, resulted in the occasional sloppy or indifferent performance. It was sometimes suggested (supposedly by jealous colleagues) that he sight-read during his recordings, an accusation that friends and students hotly denied. His refusal to leave Germany during World War II damned him in the eyes of the international music community, and for many years after the war he was persona non grata in much of Europe and America. By the early 1950's however, enough time had passed that he was able to resume playing outside of Germany.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more contrasting personality than that of Guido Cantelli. This highly-strung, fiery-tempered conductor emerged from post-war Italy to become a protege of Arturo Toscanini and a frequent guest conductor of both the NBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. Strikingly handsome and charismatic, he was also a notorious perfectionist, and rehearsals were often exhausting affairs that left tempers frayed on both sides of the podium. But the results were well worth the trouble. Under his baton the most complex works took on a rich, glowing transparency and beauty. His phrasing was impeccable, his tempos were perfectly judged and faithful to the composer's intentions, and the sound he drew from the orchestra was both precise and jocosely robust. He maintained a constant rhythmic drive and urgency that kept listeners on the edges of their seats.

In March of 1955, these two geniuses were thrust together for what must have been an unforgettable evening at Carnegie Hall. With Cantelli leading the New York Philharmonic, Gieseking was the featured soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, the famous "Elvira Madigan" concerto. The performance was recorded by radio engineers and has come down to us in pretty decent shape, along with dozens of other wonderful concerts from that era. I was introduced to it, oh, probably 20 years ago by a fellow collector and it has become one of my favorite recordings. I'm not alone in considering it one of the greatest Mozart recordings in existence. If you love Mozart but have never heard this famous performance, you owe it yourself to give it a listen.

It's apparent from the the opening bars that something special is going on. If you prefer your Mozart in dainty little nibbles, you'd better stop here. The orchestral introduction rumbles and chortles, then explodes with ferocious glee. After wringing every ounce out of the main theme, Cantelli subsides for a moment and Gieseking makes his entrance with a coy little improvised run that teases the listener into momentary complacence. He states the main theme without fuss, then gradually builds the intensity and force of his playing. The orchestra comes back into play and now commences the best example of an "argument" between soloist and accompaniment that you are ever likely to hear. Each side eggs on the other, echoing themes and introducing new ones in a contest of wit and will. Gieseking's tone dances and sparkles, while the orchestra growls and shouts. It's a fascinating collaboration. The cadenza is Gieseking's own and introduces some shocking harmonics--his personal tastes in composition ran toward twelve-tone techniques--but it's also tender and childlike in its treatment of the thematic material.

Cantelli begins the second movement with a brisk, singing rendition of the tune made famous by it's prominent use in the 1967 movie Elvira Madigan. It's beautifully judged, but Gieseking isn't content to let it go at that, for immediately upon entering he pushes the tempo ahead, forcing the orchestra to scramble to catch up. He seems to find even Cantelli's unsentimental take on the music too "drippy" and opts for a more driven approach. The result is a taut, sustained tension that emphasizes the eternally aching, yearning quality of Mozart's gorgeous theme.

The third movement is taken at a death-defying pace, and after "shaking things out" in the opening passages, Gieseking and Cantelli dash breathlessly to the finish in a virtuosic whirl. The audience responds with a shattering roar of approval.

The performance is available on a number of CD issues, most of them currently out of print. It's easiest to obtain on iTunes by searching for "gieseking cantelli." In addition you get a contemporaneous performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Cantelli and the great Jascha Heifetz. It's an excellent companion to the Mozart.

Sadly, neither Gieseking nor Cantelli were to live long after this momentous event. They died within a month of each other in late 1956--Gieseking at age 61 from medical complications following a car accident, Cantelli at only 36 in a plane crash. While Gieseking was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career, there's little doubt that Cantelli would have developed into one of the most famous conductors of the modern era.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday in Southern Oregon

We took a short day trip today to Briggs Creek, which is in the Siskiyou Mountains west of Grants Pass and feeds into the Rogue River. Exiting I-5 north of Grants Pass, you pass through Merlin and then Galice. The road takes you along the Rogue Gorge...

...and past the Hellgate portion of the Rogue River, famous for its thrilling raft rides. It's also the setting for numerous movies and television shows, including Gunsmoke, Rooster Cogburn and The River Wild.

Eventually you turn off onto a single-lane road that snakes its way up a mountain and deep into the Rogue Forest. Many miles of winding road later, you come upon several popular recreation areas. Big Pine is home to the tallest known Ponderosa pine tree. There's a wonderful interpretive trail with a series of hiking loops, each one longer than the next but all of them suitable for kids and tired parents.

Someone put a lot of effort into the layout, evidenced by the beautiful wooden bridge, the well-kept paths and the interpretive signs. It was once a highly "accessible" area, with talking exhibits for the blind and other features. Much of that has deteriorated, but it's still a charming place for little ones.

Big Pine itself is truly awesome...

...and over 300 hundred years old.

Driving a bit further you come to the Sam Brown Horse Trails and Campground, named for a miner who had a habit of fooling around with other miners' wives and paid a hefty price for it. Apparently there's a grave site nearby but we didn't look for it. Briggs Creek trail is more rustic but still well-defined and maintained. I can't begin to describe how good it smelled here.

The trail is about 4 miles long, makes several fords across Briggs and Turkey Creeks and passes some abandoned mining camps and cabins. The swimming holes along the way are well-known and popular in the summer. Here's one surrounded by lush umbrella plants:

After a couple of fords we grew less adventurous and veered off onto a logging road that loops back to the campground. We spotted a garter snake sunning himself in the middle of the road. He was very sleepy and only slithered off when we tried to touch him.

It was a beautiful fall day, 70 degrees, with bright sun, clear blue sky and a light breeze. The air was filled with hints of pine, rotting leaves, campfire smoke and other autumn scents. Just heavenly.