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Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

April 2008

by Jonathan Lowe

There are few, if any, current actors as famous as Thomas C. Mapother IV, the short and seemingly unremarkable youth whose hidden talent lay dormant in his cocky bravado until his first agent shortened his name to Tom Cruise. The fascinating story of the rise of this middle class boy with an iconic smile to one of the most powerful players in Hollywood is detailed in TOM CRUISE: AN UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by Andrew Morton. It's all here, from Tom's family roots in Ireland to his being picked-on by romantic rivals in high school, and from his "bizarre" jumping-the-couch scene on Oprah to his being lured by then-desperate cult leaders eager to capitalize on his celebrity. Estranged from his stern father, while doting on his mother, Tom was something of an enigma to his many girlfriends and wives, and remains so to this day. Known for his obsessive focus on career and image, Cruise sought both creative and personal control whenever possible, which was why it seemed so shocking to see him display emotion on Oprah. (The actual event itself seems mild when viewed now on YouTube, since any fan in the audience at the time clearly seems more excited simply by his being there.) As narrated by John Hinch, the audio version maintains interest with just the right mix of anecdotes to embellish the timeline, and a not overly colorful or austere reading. You may not learn much new about Cruise the man, if you're a die-hard fan, but the objectivity of the author, who also did books on Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky, is evident throughout. (MacMillan Audio download from; 6 hours unabridged)

Next, actor John Rubinstein's long association with clinical psychologist turned mystery novelist Jonathan Kellerman continues in COMPULSION, a thriller featuring (appropriately enough) psychologist Alex Delaware, along with his own LAPD associate and sidekick, Milo Sturgis. On this outing the pair hunt a serial killer whose M.O. includes stealing luxury sedans in upscale L.A. for murders in the city's seedier suburbs. Ultimately, their manhunt moves from the brokers and hookers of the City of Angels to the even more colorful denizens of the Big Apple, propelled by Rubinstein's intricately honed talent for creating realistic dialogue. Of course Kellerman supplies the obsessively detailed text for this, but it is their paring that gives the listener an almost real-time experience as the investigation proceeds. (Better than the TV series 24 because one must exercise the imagination, too.) On a cultural level, it may be revealing to note that you also learn as much or more about L.A. society as you do about things like crime scene procedures, psycho-pathology, or the habits of compulsive killers. And speaking of associations, it may also be who you know that counts in another sense, too, even if we dismiss the question of whether Dr. Kellerman actually assists the other novelists in his household - wife Faye and son Jesse. (Random House Audio; 10 hours unabridged)

Next, British author Sophie Kinsella is best known for her Shopaholic series, and this time delivers a modern fairy tale with rather stock characters and a predictable twist. Still, REMEMBER ME? is fun at times, as listeners can't help but empathize with "Lexi Smart" through her ordeal and attempts to cope. No, she's not dying. Her dilemma is that, upon being struck on the head during a car crash, she's lost her short term memory. So when she wakes up in the hospital, all Lexi remembers is being a twenty-five year old working girl, and not a wealthy woman with perfect teeth, a millionaire husband, and a glamourous job. Three years from her life are missing. Desperate to remember something about the schemes that seem to be developing around her, Lexi is determined to become "who she seems to be." In an ironic way, this may also be the dilemma of the listener, in identifying what they want from escapist entertainment. "To escape, of course, you ninny," Lexi might say. Narrator Charlotte Parry nails the character, in a contrived and formulaic story that does benefit from a spot-on performance. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)

Of course George Lucas is one savvy storyteller, not only because he licenses his blockbuster concept to certain other selected authors, (who breathe new life into what would otherwise be a dying franchise), but because he maintains effective quality control over all productions, even through distributors. So the performance copyright for STAR WARS REVELATION: Legacy of the Force, while it may be distributed by the largest publisher on Lucas's home world (Earth), is held instead by LucasFilm Ltd.. Which also explains the sound effects present throughout, since few audiobook producers have the time to add such effects and music. This latest production seems designed for radio, and is written by British author Karen Traviss (who penned five previous Star Wars related novels), and features the son of Hans Solo as a Sith Lord named Jacen, while Luke Skywalker's nephew Ben heads an alliance against the dark side. Ben must risk everything to find out if Jacen killed his mother Mara, while Jacen's sister Jaina seeks to learn the dangerous skills of Boba Fett in order to bring her brother back to the fold. Sound familiar? Naturally there's swordplay and hanger deck assaults to keep the storyline moving. Most notable, though, is narrator Marc Thompson, whose versatile voiceovers can also be heard in many commercials and cartoons. (Random House Audio; 6 hours abridged)

Finally, do you remember the movie Dead Poets Society? The new audiobook ENGLISH MAJORS might attract a similar audience, as well as those who love slapstick and a quirky stage show. Included on the two disks taken from A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION are "the Six Minute Hamlet," tributes to Hawthorne, Kerouac & Emily Dickinson, and a "Guy Noir" investigation of an MFA scam. Contributing to the skits are Dave Barry, Calvin Trillin, Meryl Streep, Allen Ginsberg, Billy Collins, Donald Hall, Roy Blount Jr., and the master himself in the final piece, which was recorded at the University Concert Hall in Limerick, Ireland. Garrison Keillor is, of course, best when he's just talking to the audience, describing his life and the residents of that most quirky of all towns, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. What follows is my email interview with him. (Highbridge Audio; 2 1/2 hours unabridged)

Jonathan Lowe: You have an association with Minnesota Public Radio and with Highbridge Audio, and you often tour the country with your radio show, besides teaching at the University of Minnesota. What gives you most satisfaction--writing, performing, or teaching?

Garrison Keillor: I don't associate work with feelings of satisfaction. Rather, guilt, frustration, and resentment of people who write better than I do. Writing is the main gig around here, and teaching and performing are sidelines, an excuse for not writing more. Working on a novel and on an opera make me seriously want to retire and find a volunteer job as a docent at the zoo explaining to schoolchildren where frogs go in the winter.


Lowe: What inspired you to begin this journey? Who influenced you?

Keillor: I was inspired by the need, as an English major, to earn a living in the world and to pay the rent and purchase coffee and cheese danish. I spent most of the 60s in college, imagining I was brilliant, and then, in 1969, my son was born and I had to find work that someone would be willing to pay me to do, and the choices were limited in the extreme. Fortunately, I caught on as a DeeJay in public radio and I've clung to this raft ever since. My last job interview was in 1969. I will never write another resume. This is my earnest prayer.


Lowe: In your novel Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 you mention a lady who hypnotizes chickens before chopping their heads off. Then there's the Doo Dads singing "My Girl" while repressed 14 year old Gary tries to both indulge and conquer his adolescent urges. With all the description and depiction going on, your town of Lake Wobegon really comes to life, and has people asking you if the place really exists. Do you see that question as a compliment or a nuisance?

Keillor: Nothing that readers say or do strikes me as a nuisance. Anyone who cracks open a book of mine is, to me, a gem. And I am impressed that you know about the chicken hypnotizer and the Doo Dads and the boy's adolescent urges. Most interviewers don't have time to read my books. They ask questions like "What's your favorite TV show?" or "What's it like to be your age and know that the twilight years are near?" As for Lake Wobegon, it's a real place, so the question is easily answered.


Lowe: You live in St. Paul, in the land of 10,000 oft-frozen lakes. I was born there, but haven't been back since age six. How has the area changed, and is the longing for simplicity and family values more alive there than elsewhere?

Keillor: In the time since you left, son, Minnesota hasn't changed all that much, except the Twins won the World Series twice, and we elected an irate oaf for a governor, and a lot of farms have been lost to housing developments with names like Woodlawn and Riverwood and Floodcrest. I don't detect a longing for simplicity so much as a longing for a 28 hour day. People are ferociously busy, and it's taken a toll on all the leisurely arts, such as friendship and humor and good samaritanship. There isn't time for it. As for family values, they are whatever they are - some families are tight, others are blown away like dandelion puffs. A main value in Minnesota is still: don't waste my time, don't B.S. me, I wasn't born yesterday.


Lowe: What is audience reaction to your shows and signings? Any anecdotes to share?

Keillor: I did a reading in Seattle at which a little girl in the front row fell sound asleep. She slept for more than an hour. It was sweet. I seem to have a God given ability there. Some people in the room were hooting and slapping their knees, and she simply leaned her head against the fat lady next to her and dozed off. It's good to be useful. A boy wrote me once to say that he loved it when the news from Lake Wobegon came on the radio because it meant that his parents stopped arguing. That was an eye-opener for me. You work hard to polish your act and then you find out that it does people good in ways you couldn't predict. The audience is invisible and that's good. Somewhere my voice is drifting through a swine barn and the sound of it seems to perk up the sows' appetite. Or a lady is listening on headphones as she jogs along a beach, running to my cadence. Or a dog sits in front of the radio, head cocked, and the sibilants excite him in some mysterious way. A dog's humorist, that's me.


Lowe: Your guests are an eclectic mix of musicians and storytellers. Who are you most proud of having had on the show, and who do you wish would appear or come back?

Keillor: Chet Atkins was a classy act. Nobody like him. The man never had a bad night. And Willie Nelson. A great musician, very underrated. Bogan, Martin, and Armstrong were great, an old black string band from Knoxville. And Emmylou Harris and Gilliian Welch and the Fairfield Four. And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When they left, at the intermission, the hall was suddenly half empty. I wish Willie would come back, but then I also wish I were 36, so what can you do?


Lowe: On the show you also have comedy radio drama skits and fake commercials. Are those items advertised ever real?

Keillor: They're all real, actually. Bertha's Kitty Boutique, and the American Duct Tape Council, and Bebopareebop Rhubarb pie, and Powdermilk Biscuits. And if you'd like to buy a few shares of stock, see me.


Lowe: What does Garrison Keillor do during off hours, if there is such a thing as off hours for you?

Keillor: Sleeps, cooks, reads, plays with the kid, goes to movies, shovels snow, sits and yaks with friends. I'm a lucky guy. I get to sit around every day and indulge in make believe and get paid for it.


Lowe: What's next for you?

Keillor: A show on Saturday. Look forward to it.

2008 Past Columns

David Baldacci / Mar Reviews

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