Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Road Trip Listening: Fiction and Nonfiction

With my twenty-five-minute drive each way during the school year, I get a little crazy without an audiobook. When I have a long drive during the summer, it's even more imperative. On my recently trip to Alabama to visit family, I had two quite dissimilar books.  First, I listened to Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club, a most interesting story of the wives of the first set of astronauts--Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and more, and a couple of the generations that followed.

I've always been interested in the space programs, especially since I grew up a hour from Huntsville.  I loved Michener's Space, and I have watched the movie version of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff more times than I can count.  Much of what I learned in Koppel's book goes beyond those stories.  My favorite line from The Right Stuff was Grissom's wife calling him a "squirming hatch blower," a detail I use in comp class when we discuss "loaded language."  The incident--which cost Mrs. Grissom a visit to the white house and one-on-one with Jackie Kennedy was interesting from her perspective.

I wasn't totally surprised to learn how much pressure these women endured to keep up a front of the perfect family--even though the powers-that-be turned their heads when many of the astronauts were carrying on with the "Cape Cookies," as the astronaut groupies were called.

Even though the author tells so many different stories, she clearly differentiates between the women. She reveals the friendships and rivalries, as well as the fears they endured. This far removed from the early days of space flight, it's easy to forget that these astronauts were going into untested waters--basically sitting on top of explosives.

The glimpse into the way presidential politics played in the space race was also interesting to me.  LBJ, by the way, did not get a very favorable depiction. Jackie Kennedy came across as more human than usual.

By contrast, Diane Setterfield's novel Bellman and Black is a dark story, almost Faustian in tone.  Setterfield, the author of the bestseller The Thirteenth Tale, weaves a fascinating story of William Bellman, who inherits his uncle's textile manufacturing mill, despite his questionable birthright. Young Will shows an early interest and ability, while the rightful heir, his uncle's son, chooses to live in Paris, trying to live an artist's life.

The novel opens when the boy, his cousin and two friends--at nine or ten are playing in the woods and Will shoots and kills a rook.  Throughout the novel, between the story itself, the narrator gives mythical and historical information about rooks, particularly some of the collective nouns used to describe them. Although Will builds a successful industry, he loses close friends and family members, and at each funeral he catches a glimpse of a man in black that no one else seems to notice.

When tragedy strikes a hard blow to Bellman's own family, he encounters the mysterious man during his grief and they end up striking some sort of bargain.  While Will doesn't exactly remember the details of any agreement they must have reached, he goes on to tackle another hugely successful venture, all the while losing touch with his prior life and self.  The book serves as almost a parable, but the author is never so heavy handed as to spell out the lesson explicitly for the reader--or even for Bellman himself.

By the end of the ride--and the final CD, I'd explored everywhere from the English countryside to the surface of the moon, and I was ready to see where books would take me next.


Unknown said...

1since you are reviewing audiobooks, and not just books, you should comment on the narrator. Does s/he drone or do well with the different voices? Is this title best delivered by audio, or should it be read in print?
-the other audio fan, Betty

Nancy said...

Thanks, Betty. If a narrator is BAD, I'm more likely to say so. Either of these would work well either way. Anything by Sherman Alexie or Neil Gaiman works GREAT in audio, as did The Rosie Project.

I like readers with British accents, but have a little trouble sometimes with French accents (the Alex Trebek affectation.)

I loved Rosie Project and The Stories LIfe of AJ Fikry in audio. I still wanted to own them in print too.