by Sukey HowardApril, 2002
Spoken word selections for spring
Rohinton Mistry's fine novel, A Fine Balance, with its non-Western setting, differs from most of the books chosen for Oprah's Book Club, but I'm delighted that the novel, and now this audio, wonderfully narrated by Madhur Jaffrey, have gotten renewed and well-deserved attention as a result of the selection. Set in India in 1975 during a state of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, it follows the intertwining lives of four very different people a widow desperate to hold on to her independence, two poor tailors escaping the terror of caste violence in their village, and a student with more means than the others, but fewer resources. Their lives are a fine balance between hope and despair and, in the end, despite hardships that we can hardly imagine, it is the one with the most who loses his balance. Though Mistry focuses on only a few characters, he manages to paint a vibrant, horrific, often heroic, portrait of life in India and of people who endure when endurance seems impossible.
All for art
A woman painter who earns a living with her art? Not so unusual today, but Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593, when women didn't do that sort of thing. Now, Susan Vreeland gives us a fascinating novel about this fascinating historical figure in The Passion of Artemisia, read in its entirety by Gigi Bermingham. Raped at the age of 17 by her father's best friend, Artemisia was dragged through a scandalous, humiliating trial in Rome, then married off to a mediocre Florentine painter who cared little for her. Yet, Florence was where she overcame the prejudices of her day with her prodigious talent and where she first won the patronage of the wealthy and titled. Set in the great cities of Baroque Italy, where life for a painter could be both glamorous and humbling, Vreeland evokes an Artemisia as bold and brave and passionate as the paintings she created.
Elmore Leonard has done it again. He has come up with a prime crime caper with the smart, snappy dialogue we've come to expect, a cast of crazy characters including members of the drug-manufacturing Dixie Mafia, some Detroit toughs, a high-diving hero, a top-of-the-line scam artist and an assortment of fine, feisty women and a plot that does more than thicken. Tishomingo Blues is set in Tunica, Mississippi, "the Casino Capital of the South," before, during and after a Civil War re-enactment. There's a pitched battle (not exactly what the war-buffs had in mind), pitched woo (licit and ill-) and a perfect-pitch reading by Frank Muller, one of our foremost audio performers, who does the accents black, white, Chicano, male, female, Northern and Southern with uncanny ease.
Good cop or bad cop?
"What I don't do is solve murder cases or disprove cases that have already been made by the police." But that's exactly what Derek Strange, ex-D.C. cop and owner of Strange Investigations, does in George Pelecanos' unsettling, moody mystery novel, Right as Rain. The case Strange takes on involves the killing of a black cop by a white cop. Terry Quinn, the white cop, was cleared, but the dead man's mother wants her son's good name restored and wants to know whether it was a real case of mistaken identity or racially motivated manslaughter. Hard to tell even when all the sordid facts are sorted out, all the complex connections made even when Strange and Quinn, who face down some truly nasty folks together, get to be almost friends. Richard Allen, whose credits aren't given on the packaging, does an excellent job with the narrative and the dialogue, getting both black and white voices right as rain.
The Word In The Beginning: The King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Audio Editions, $24.95, ISBN 1572702494) is that wonderful and rare kind of audio one that both educates and entertains. Alister McGrath, molecular biologist and Bible scholar, has done his research superbly and covers what his ambitious subtitle lays out. The King James Bible was published in 1611, but McGrath, who reads here, starts much farther back in time, putting this fascinating story, this biography of the Book, into a wide historical context. He includes politics and intrigue, the development of printing, the Reformation and its broad-ranging repercussions, the emergence of England as a maritime power and English as a language of all its people. The goal of those who worked on the King James edition was to translate the Bible into living English. And so they did, not knowing that they had created one the most important and influential works of literature ever written.
Sukey Howard reports on spoken word audio each month.