Published in the Chapel Hill Herald, Jun. 09, 2014
I used to love a good long read. Fat books almost ensured a setting that claimed me, a character I cared about, an intricate plot and full descriptions along the way. Becoming a book critic changed me. I succumbed to the power of deadlines and the reviewer’s curse, “too little time, too many books.” Length was no longer a delight, but an obstacle.
Audio books were a temporary solution to my print weariness and the towering pile of books beside my bed. At first, I rented audios that were as long as possible. I wanted to get my money’s worth. Now I draw back when an audio promises 20-plus hours of listening.
However I felt the same pleasure I once had when listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (Penguin, 18 CDs, 21 hours, 44 mintues) and Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings” (Penguin, 12 CDs, 13.5 hours).
People seemed to either love or hate Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 “Eat, Pray, Love” (Books on Tape, 11 CDs, 12 hours, 52 minutes). I found it hard to relate to a privileged memoirist who could travel the world to find herself. So I balked at her long novel, worried that like so many books of authors who have skyrocketed to fame, it would suffer from editorial laissez-faire. Only after several friends told me it had been entirely different from her first book did I give it a chance.
The prologue hooked me immediately with its wit, word play and a tone that conveyed the historical period. Alma Whittaker was “born with the century, slipped into our world on the fifth of January 1800.” Her Dutch mother is “satisfied” after earlier miscarriages, including one son who “had come right to the brink of life, but then changed his mind about it on the very morning he was meant to be born and arrived already departed.” Lyrical writing wins me over easily, but it wasn’t long before I was also engaged by Gilbert’s setting, plot and the characters.
Juliet Stevenson reads the narrative bits with a crispness that reflects the scientific bent of Alma. She colors the dialogue with shades that show her mother’s learned nature and the mix of caring indulgence and demeaning barbs of her wealthy father. Stevenson slides easily between accents, characterizes quickly and distinguishes the passing decades.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s fiction is firmly focused, not on herself, but the complex heroine who leads listeners into an unusual perspective of the 19th century. Listeners will be so immersed in the tale, they will likely pause only briefly to admire Gilbert’s strength of detailing the natural world, well-woven research that adds to authenticity of characters and settings, and the marvelous way she captures the woman who finds discovers herself despite rigid familial and historic constraints.
The descriptions of Alma’s discoveries about lands far beyond her Philadelphia home rang true as did the intellectual curiosity that leads her to study literature, Latin, Greek, botany, and secretly, her sexuality. Still, she’s unprepared when she falls in love with the talented artist, Ambrose Pike, her intellectual equal, who seeks only a spiritual connection, denying her desire. Their long examinations of spiritual beliefs seemed more discourse than dialogue, but is the only bit of bloat I found.
Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings has fast-pacing, two fascinating characters and a duo of exquisite narrators — Adepero Oduye and Jenna Lamia. All of these held me from the first CD to the last. Adepero Oduye reads the parts of Hettie Grimke who, in 1803, became the slave of 11-year-old Sarah Grimke. Hettie is beloved by her mother, who is talented at sewing, storytelling and shrewdness as “everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.” Hettie’s mother tells how her African-born Grannymama saw people fly like blackbirds but “left that magic behind.” She concludes the tale for her doubting daughter, “Where you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl … this all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day, you gonna get ‘em back.” Listeners will be immediately wrapped in the magic of Kidd’s imagery and dialogue, anchored in Oduye’s apt voicing of both.
Jenna Lamia’s introduction of young Sarah Grimke, a real historical figure dimensionalized by Kidd, is strikingly different. While Oduye’s voice exudes power and strength, Janna Lamia expresses Sarah’s with tones that are softer, halting and tenuous. These characterize well someone raised by a mother who is “simply mean.” Sarah’s earliest memory occurs when, at 4, she happens on a brutal whipping designed by her mother, and adopts a life-long speech impediment after seeing the back of the slave’s dress “sprout blood … blooms of red that open like petals” and can’t reconcile the woman’s keening with her mother’s lash counting. Throughout Lamia affects both a light Southern accent and stuttering “when lumps of words … cower.”
Kidd fills the voices of each protagonist with musicality that readers almost need to endure her brutal descriptions of their multitude of hardships. The audio talents of Lamia and Adepepro turn Kidd’s words into a symphony that makes audio minutes speed by.