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By Jonathan Lowe

Feburary 2012

by Jonathan Lowe

What can you say about one of the biggest (and first) big business scandals of the new Century? Deregulation from Clinton to George Bush, and now to Obama has led America to the brink of financial ruin. It was a license to steal, and the big banks did so by paying off politicians and ratings agencies and even professors of economics at Harvard. Then they had the audacity to snub their own employees as they climbed into their luxury yachts and jets. ENRON by Lucy Prebble was a stage play, and is now an audiobook from L.A. Theatre Works, with Rosalyn Ayres (usually a narrator) directing a full cast. Call it an immorality tale showing how greed can blind people to everything but the bottom line--like a poker game gone wrong--and from which no one emerges unscathed. With acting skills too good to fail, the performers here are Steven Weber, Gregory Itzin and Amy Pietz with Chris Butler, Jackie Emerson, Greg Germann, Pamela J. Gray, Kasey Mahaffy, Jon Matthews, Julia McIlvaine, Russell Soder, Kenneth Alan Williams and Matthew Wolf.

UNDER THE SKIN is an offbeat horror story by Michel Faber about an alien temptress who picks up muscular hitchhikers in order to have them processed as food by her superiors. The writing is superb, slowing revealing more about the character and her emotions about her situation. Two things are fascinating here, the one building to the other. First, we are forced to see a view of humanity from an intelligence outside our own, with a cold calculation imposed on it from a source without sympathy or empathy. (She has more empathy with a dog, and this fact leads us to consider the mystery of why societies dehumanize people outside their group or clan.) Then, nearer the end, we are forced to toy with empathy for this alien, since she is an outcast, being used by a system within her own species. It will be interesting to see how the movie version turns out, with Scarlett Johansson in the lead. As for the audiobook, narrator Gerri Halligan could hardly have been better chosen. She has all the Scottish and English accents down perfectly, and lends the production with a precise and affecting experience that leads to a subtle yet gripping pathos.

If "absurd" and "zany" are adjectives you want to describe a comic novel, LUNATICS by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel may be just the ticket. They also read the novel on audio, along with Mark Thompson, Sean Kenin, and Orlagh Cassidy. The plot concerns a pet shop owner and "forensic plumber" whose crossed paths and silly misadventures led to them becoming international criminals being sought by police. Into the soup are thrown a kidnapped lemur, arguments over politics and fashion, Donald Trump's hair, and just about every etiquette malfunction and bathroom joke you can imagine. The story is lobbed back and forth between the two like a tennis ball you can't take your eyes from, utilizing short chapters alternately delivered. Everyone knows Barry as a longtime newspaper humor columnist, while Zweibel is an Emmy winning TV comedy writer (SNL to Curb Your Enthusiasm.) They play opposites here, for effect, but are essentially equal in their wish to tickle the same targeted funny bone.

When a school shooting happens, the public shakes their heads and inevitably asks the question, "What kind of parents let this happen?" Certainly parents have a decisive role in how children turn out, but in some cases the child may have been born with latent tendencies toward anti-social behavior. In WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN author Lionel Shriver explores the character of a woman named Eva, whose child murdered nine people just before his 16th birthday. Eva never bonded with Kevin, and now, two years after the murders, writes letters to her estranged husband trying to understand what happened, and how much of the blame she holds. Coleen Marlo narrates the novel, which was made into a movie in England starring Tilda Swinton. Thought provoking and deeply engaging, the story is well told by Marlo, whose precise and listenable voice is augmented by a sensitivity to tone, making the letters come alive. The writing is intelligent and well crafted, evoking consideration of how one parent can be blinded by optimism while the other is left to forge an understanding of cause and effect, leading to forgiveness. The reader is left to think, if not to talk, about Kevin long afterward, given the honesty of the narrative and the twists of plot. The 2003 novel has just been released on audio, since the movie is getting a wider release in America.

2012 Past Columns