by Sukey HowardApril 2009
Two great chroniclers of America
Toward the end of 2008 we lost Studs Terkel and, in the first month of 2009, John Updike. In their very different ways, they were both consummate chroniclers of life and society. Updike, one of our great modern writers, wrote fiction, essays, criticism and verse. But it’s his novels and short stories, with their lyric, burnished prose, that capture a half-century of American manners, mores and morality. He was a master of the carefully observed, of the details of our domestic bustle, and he has, as Adam Gopnik so eloquently put it, “set down, for readers still unborn, all the sweetness of our common life.” The 13 stories in The John Updike Audio Collection, all from The Early Stories, 1953-1975, are narrated by Jane Alexander, Edward Herrmann and, luckily for us, by Updike himself.
Terkel, an effervescent, cigar-chomping, smoky-voiced Chicago radio personality, became a legendary oral historian who crisscrossed the country, talking with ordinary people about war, work, the Depression and more, weaving a proud patchwork history of America in the 20th century. Coming of Age: Growing up in the Twentieth Century looks at the experience of aging and is now available on CD for the first time, with Terkel reading the introduction. It’s a classic, a wonderful example of the Terkel approach: letting people have their say in their own way.
This Luciano is no Mafiosi, not even a minor gangster. He’s an orphan, an urchin on the winding calles and canals of 15th-century Venice who’s plucked off the street to become an apprentice to the renowned chef of the doge, the titular head of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Luciano is subject to a very Venetian lust to know everything, an insatiable curiosity that leads him into life-threatening peril and into realms of knowledge he’d never even dreamt of. He tells all in The Book of Unholy Mischief, Elle Newmark’s evocative, spirited tale of Renaissance intrigue, replete with vile, power-hungry politicians, avaricious fools and an unusual man dedicated to preserving and passing on uncensored knowledge. That man, the chef, Luciano’s mentor and maestro, is far more than a master of savory sauces, and his cookbook is far more than a repository of recipes. I can’t say more, but the truth will out as you listen to Raúl Esparza, whose fine performance and vigorous pacing adds much to the entertainment.
Richard North Patterson is a master of legal pyrotechnics, of making arcane arguments into pulse-pounding suspense. Eclipse, his latest, wonderfully performed by Peter Francis James with perfectly rendered accents galore, is not only a showcase for his intimate knowledge of lawyerly matters and thriller-diller plotting, but a convincing plea for us to find an alternative to our oil-guzzling way of life. Based loosely on the life and death of a courageous, nonviolent Nigerian human rights and environmental activist who was hanged in 1994, protagonist Bobby Otari is a gifted, internationally known novelist from the oil-rich delta of Luanda (read Nigeria), who goes back to salvage his horrendously polluted land and its people held hostage by a brutal, tyrannical kleptocracy, supported by our fuel-frenzied government. There’s a backstory—a brilliant San Francisco lawyer with an overarching need to prosecute human rights violators, the woman he falls in love with who has committed herself to Otari and his cause, and her plea for help years later when Bobby is arrested. It’s a wild ride through vile human behavior, abject greed and disdain for justice that carries a profound message from the heart of darkness.