Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Audio Buzz, Past
Audio Book News
By Jonathan Lowe

AUG 2013
by Jonathan Lowe

McCarthy is a frontier outpost in Alaska where "Papa" Pilgrim (Robert Hale) arrived a decade ago with his wife and thirteen kids, settling in with the welcoming support of a small community that saw him as a hardworking, honest, even mesmerizing embodiment of Christian family values. His property was at an abandoned copper mine next to National Park Service land, but when he bulldozed a road that intruded on that land, the Park Service wrote him letters which went unanswered or unread. An escalation ensued, as Pilgrim (Hale) began to call them names and to make threats if the "harassment" didn't end. Soon, the devout religious man began to look like David Koresh, and his clan either messianic followers or hostages and victims in need of rescue.

His secret past, along with the nature of his sociopathy, is revealed in PILGRIM'S WILDERNESS, which has the subtitle "A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier." Author Tom Kizzia is a reporter turned author, formerly with the Anchorage Daily News. The simple grace of his writing style is augmented by his command of detail. He has ferreted out the truth, as was his task in The Wake of the Unseen Object, (and with an investigator's dogged tenacity.) What emerges is a never boring chronicle of the clash between government bureaucracy and fanatical individualism (gone nuts.) Links to old Texas money, the FBI, and the movie Easy Rider, along with abuse and incest, make up some of the surprises in a story that sounds like grist for an independent film that could make the rounds of festivals, winning awards along the way, (if not the attention of Hollywood, which is too busy making blockbusters featuring giant robots these days.) Especially gripping, after all the clash of environmentalists versus land rights, is the revelation of Robert Hale in the courtroom as a man who beat his daughter and told her she would go to hell if she didn't have sex with him. Unrepentant to the end, and even after all the damning testimony of his own children, Hale claimed to be a persecuted follower of Christ doing "the Lord's work." The judge didn't buy it. Neither did anyone else. So everyone who spoke at his graveside commended his soul---not to heaven---but to hell. Actor Fred Sanders narrates, with a documentarian tone guiding often very powerful words.

Why is it, when people die, there is renewed interest in their work?

Is it the simple fact that their death is in the news, or are there other reasons? Nora Ephron's 1983 novel HEARTBURN has been given a new reading by none other than Meryl Streep in a new production (since Ephron's death last year.) The writer of Sleepless in Seattle offers up a comic interpretation of the breakup of a so-called "perfect" marriage, featuring a pregnant Rachel Samstat from her wandering husband Mark. Considered by many critics to be one of the best writers of fictional women's characters, Ephron also penned the movies When Harry Met Sally and Silkwood (hence Streep) and the books Wallflower at the Orgy, Crazy Salad, and Scribble Scribble, (all are also new in production, as read by Kathe Mazur.) Streep displays her innate sense of dramatic arc and timing, as well as her gift of creating characters, and it is unusual to hear her read exposition too, although this is a first person tale so that is mostly in-character as well.

CRAZY SALAD and SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE are combined into one audiobook, the latter being a David Foster Wallace--worthy series of essays on journalism, including the cultural reasons for creating People magazine (more people don't like to read), the food porn industry (how critics get into trouble, and the fine line between superlatives and going over the top), and why photos of a woman falling to her death enraged readers, who shouted exploitation when they really don't want to be reminded of their own mortality. (Ephron here sided with running the photos "because they are stunning, not garish" and "because dying is a part of living" and because atrocities in crime and war continue because people are not allowed to see the end result of violence.)

Humorist David Rakoff also died in August of last year after completing his last short novel: LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH. Quite an odd title to end a career writing for magazines, public radio, and screen. But that's not the biggest puzzle here. He also reads the book on audio, which is odd because his voice is weak, and often trails off into unintelligibility and hoarseness. He is obviously dying, and so his poetic and satirical swipes at Reagan, postwar California, Man Men in New York in the 1950s, marriage, and the American dream can be lost to those trying to listen, especially in traffic in their cars. If Rakoff has a message, it's that kindness can make cruelty bearable, and beauty can be found everywhere, if only we look for it. But this message may be lost, unfortunately, for audiobook listeners. If I had to guess, Rakoff asked to read this book, since he read his previous books, such as Half Empty. And the publisher was just being kind.

Rita Moreno dated Elvis, Howard Hughes, and Marlon Brando. She worked alongside Gene Kelly, Gary Cooper, Yul Brynner, James Garner, and Ann Miller. She won an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony, two Emmys, a Golden Globe, and the National Medal of Honor. Called "the Spanish Elizabeth Taylor" by Louis B. Mayer, she was typecast even after West Side Story, and fought to be seen for who she was---a feisty, honest, multi-talented performer. Her autobiography, RITA MORENO, is best heard as read by the author in her own inimitable style. What makes this biography special (and especially on audio) is that you can hear Moreno's descriptive memories come to life in real time, told chronologically from her earliest recollections of childhood in Puerto Rico to her journey to Brooklyn, and then to Hollywood. She seems unafraid to reveal herself fully, both emotionally and in thoughts and actions, and she talks at length about Marlon and about Hollywood's studio system in a way that is always personal and engaging. By the end you feel that you know Rita, an actress whose stage show is appropriately titled Life Without Makeup.

Finally, it was the BBC video production CIVILIZATION--The West and the Rest that drew me to the compelling and cogent audiobook on which it is based. Author Niall Ferguson narrates this story of the rise and eventual fall of western civilization. He describes six "killer apps" that made the West win in the game of commerce and influence over the East, along with North America's success compared to South America's.

First is competition: six hundred years ago China was the dominate progressive power, the seat of science and industry, with ships that dwarfed those of England and Spain. Even France was a squalid backwater by comparison. But China refused to decentralize its power or to extend its influence, while the West expanded and traded, establishing colonies and fighting for territory. (So fortunes were reversed.) Science is next. The Ottoman Turks lost against the West because they emphasized religion in government, while secular governance took prominence in Europe, with the Catholic church second.

So Turkish sultans destroyed printed books in favor of religion-based calligraphy, thereby nullifying progress in science and the arts, while the West applied science to field artillery, and won the day over swords. Next is democracy and property rights. George Washington supported ownership of land by everyone (albeit not slaves), while Simon Bolivar's rebellion in the South (against Spain's elitist conquests) did not then grant ordinary citizens the same rights of property and votes. Thus, South America, even with equally vast natural resources, became mired in dysfunctional tyrannies and social unrest while the United States went forward into enlightened progress and freedom. The other killer apps are Medicine, Consumerism, and the Work Ethic. Ferguson places emphasis on this last, showing that Protestant religion (as opposed to Islamic or even Catholic faiths) has inspired industry, and has spread to China in recent years (while declining in Europe, resulting in fewer hours worked there, and an increase in debt.) The reason for the Protestant work ethic's decline in Europe is due to state sponsored (and fewer) churches, while in America there is competition among many churches, and full separation of church and state. (Which is not to say Protestant religion is not without corruption too.)

The most important point Ferguson makes is that these apps apply to all societies, and history shows that no civilization has dominated for long. China is now applying these apps in ways they never have before, and gaining ground over the United States. Brazil has applied the apps to get out of debt, and while there is still social turmoil and corruption there, many Brazilians enjoy such prosperity that they have been buying second homes and condos in Miami by the hundreds, and at bargain rates after our near economic collapse (due in part to our substitution of predatory banking over manufacturing.) Are we doomed to fall soon? That is uncertain. What is certain is that Asian countries have discovered our roots, and are exploiting them now and for the first time, and this forebodes huge environmental hazards as well as a relative decline in Western standards of living. Ferguson's newest book is The Great Degeneration--How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. It's read by Paul Slack.

(Making news is someone in Florida winning over half a billion dollars in the Powerball. Coincidentally, my novel THE INSTANT CELEBRITY is about a $552 Million Florida Powerball winner who disappears, buys a Caribbean island, and finances an attack on a corrupt dictator so that he can reemerge a hero. The audiobook version is "Fame Island," read by Emmy winning film actor Kris Tabori.)


2013 Past Columns