Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sea Chanteys for the Landlubber

A few years ago my brother introduced me to sea chanteys (or shanties, but I prefer the French spelling because it's a better reflection of the word origin), and ever since I've been trying to convert all my friends. But let's face it, they're not an easy sale, especially if you aren't interested in maritime history and don't appreciate shaky old-man voices or drunken Irishman.

But chanteys have an amazing history. They were the pop-music of their time, a period that lasted about 400 years. (Can you imagine anyone on the Billboard Top 100 staying there for hundreds of years? I get sick of most of them after a few days.) Like modern pop music, chanteys were designed to be simple and stick in your head, but that was because most seamen were illiterate. Chanteys gave a rhythm to the backbreaking work of the seamen and perhaps reminded them of the comforts of home as well as the adventures awaiting them in foreign ports. You can even hear echoes of chanteys in both American slave songs and Application music, although it might be more accurate to say you hear echoes of African tribal music in sea chanteys as it's difficult to say which came first and which influenced the other.

But that's enough history. On to a new playlist of some of my favorite chanteys. While some of these songs are more technically sea ballads or drinking songs, I wanted to give some variety to make the playlist more listenable as well as give it a modern twist.

"The Mallard" by Cliff Haslam
"Blow the Man Down" by Stan Hugill
"Sally Gardens" by the King's Singers
"Whiskey in the Jar" by Wyide Nept
"Cecillia" by Simon & Gerfunkel
"Haul Away Joe" by Wyide Nept
"The Boxer" by Carbon Leaf
"Clear Away the Track" by Stan Hugill
"The Old German Clockwinder" by Cliff Haslam
"South Australia" by Liam Clancy
"Bully in the Alley" by Morrigan
"Blood Red Rose" by Liam Clancy
"Homeward Boud" by Stuart M. Frank
"Santy Ano" by Liam Clancy
"Scarborough Fair" by Simon & Garfunkel
"Mary Mac" by Carbon Leaf
"Bring 'Em Down" by Clark Branson
"John Kanakanaka" by Wyde Nepy
"What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor" by the King's Singers
"I Wish They'd Do It Now" by Cliff Haslam

If you want to read more about sea chanteys from the last real sea chanteyman in the world (he died in 1992), Shanties from the Seven Seas by Stan Hugill is a must-read. Or if you're truly adventurous, you can participate in a chantey singalong at the Griswold Inn in Essex, CT, every Monday night starting at 8 p.m.

Monday, April 25, 2011

He Is Risen

It's been a beautiful start to spring in DC. Even all the rain we've been getting can't dampen the mood the cherry blossoms bring. One of my favorite things about spring is Easter. I pretty much love any holiday, but I especially love this one that allows me to reflect upon my faith and new beginnings and forgiveness.

Although I didn't have a basket full of sweets waiting for my this morning, I received a special treat during the Easter service at church when my friend Lisa spoke about her faith in Christ and shared a beautiful message of hope with the congregation.

After the service, Lisa and our friend Dave came to my place to enjoy Easter dinner with all the trimmings. None of us have family in the area, so we made everything ourselves.

While I've made deviled eggs a few times, I tried a new baked ham recipe with rosemary and pineapple, which turned out really well. There was a couple minutes of panic when I realized I had no salad dressing, but thanks to the internet, I found a rosemary-dijon dressing I happened to have all the ingredients for.

And lisa made an incredible mince meat pie. This was the first time I've even had mince meat, but I'm a fan.

After way too much food, we decided to to take Dave on a tour of the monuments. (Dave's visiting from LA and leaves early tomorrow morning.) Unfortunately, it started pouring as soon as we got down to the Tidal Basin, so we only made it through the FDR Memorial and walked about halfway to the Jefferson Memorial before we were too cold and wet to do the walking tour. So we drove around the city and pointed to distant, rain-obscured buildings.

Overall, it was a great holiday. I missed my family and Aunt Chris' big Easter bash, but I look forward to heading to Chicago for my cousin's wedding next month. I hope your holiday was filled with good memories, good food and good reflections on the season. On to new beginnings and new blessings in the year to come.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fairy Tale Retelling?

A friend of mine had her baby-sitter cancel on her this weekend, and thanks to rain, the baseball game I was planning on attending was postponed. Thus, I was free to watch her three children. And because I don't often hang out with kids without a "teen" in their age, I watched my first animated Disney movie in years (I believe I saw both Meet the Robinsons and Chicken Little on plane rides at some point).

Aside from the predictable dialogue and less than stellar music, I found myself laughing. A lot. Maybe it was because kids' laughter is unbelievably infectious, or maybe it was so predictable that I laughed at the jokes both coming and going. I really don't know. And it's beside the point. Watching this movie made me think about how different Tangled is from the Rapunzel story I heard growing up, yet somehow the story manages to be both recognizable and nostalgic.

Which begs the question, when does a story go from being a retelling to being a completely different story? And if it’s labeled a fairy tale, how closely does it need to stick to folklore before it becomes fantasy?

In lit classes, a lot of professors like to say that there are only a handful of stories that are told over and over. You have the creation, the epic journey, the love saga, the family drama—depending on who you talk to, the archetypes are slightly different. While this might be one of those intellectual quandaries designed to make you think about what you’re reading, I mostly think it’s a cop-out to pave the way for comparative essays.

Ever storyteller uses unique skills to make a story their own. How many boy-meets-girl stories can there really be? Yet each rom-com keeps us wondering how the two hopeless cases will ever get together in the end. And what more can we possibly do with man vs. man? But every time the underdogs sacrificially face an army twice their size, we always cheer when they manage to defeat their foes. Shakespeare often based his stories on mythology and local legends, and even Jesus Christ quoted past prophets and familiar allegories to teach the people in his day. So maybe a story is found more in the audience than the teller.

Throughout the entire movie, my friend’s 7-year-old daughter never batted an eye at the horse who acted like a dog or wondered how simple lanterns could fly or took pause at how a man could jump from a castle tower and not get hurt, nor did she once question how Rapunzel could cart around all that hair without it getting dirty, knotted or broken. What she didn’t buy into was how a tear could heal someone after magic hair had failed. The irony being that it was Rapunzel’s tears the healed the prince in the original story—the Grimm’s Brothers never mentioned there was anything magic about her hair. My young friend was shocked when I told her that was basically the only thing Disney kept from the original.

The next day I gave my friend a copy of Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel so the family could read a more scholarly version of the fairy tale. But just because it’s based more closely on the Italian folklore doesn’t make it any more valid of a story. After all, how strong can human hair really be?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Etymology vs. Entomology: Two unrelated words with two unrelated stories

et·y·mol·o·gy (n) the study of historical linguistic change, especially as manifested in individual words. From the Greek étymo, meaning true, and lógos, meaning reason.

For someone with as poor spelling skills as I have, I sure do love me some word origins. So it should really come as no surprise that as a friend and I stood in line at the grocery story, we debated the word origins of ass (i.e., rear end) and asinine (i.e., silly). Our conversation was quite animated, and as we were in a rather busy grocery store in D.C. rather late at night, I'm sure many customers were glad they had left their children at home.

The guy behind us in line--whom I believe was just as intrigued by our conversation as we were--finally looked it up on his phone. Come to find out, ass (i.e., rear end) and asinine (i.e., silly) do not share word origins. However, ass (i.e., donkey) and asinine (i.e., silly) do. We thought this wonderful news as we could then feel completely justified in using the word ass in reference to a person acting ridiculous without being accused of using vulgarity.

(Notice the correct usage of i.e. from the Latin id est, meaning that is, and not e.g. from the Latin exemplī grātiā, meaning for example.)

en·to·mol·o·gy (n) the branch of zoology dealing with insects. From the Greek éntoma, meaning insect, and lógos, meaning reason.

My friend took an entomology class in college, and we'd catch bugs for him to mount and study. At the time I lived in a basement apartment, and my roommates caught this enormous praying mantis because they knew David would want it. This mantis was so aggressive that it hissed and screamed and snapped all the way to the ethyl acetate then frozen for two days*. It was totally disturbing but looked really cool mounted.

Only the next day, David went back to the lab and found that it was a zombie mantis come back to life. Angrier than ever, it was struggling to free itself from the mounting block. So he drowned it in ethanol and did some other things to ensure its demise that I won't go into. I had nightmares about it coming to get me in my sleep for a week. I still can't see a praying mantis without a little shiver running down my spine.

(Despite the homophone--or heterograph--a praying mantis is called such because it looks like it's in the act of supplication and not because of its aggressive perusal of prey.)

*Apparently my memory isn't that good because David had to correct some of my zombie mantis details. But he tells me the mantis is still in the BYU-Idaho insect collection as far as he knows.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Where would we be without books?

The American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom released this week the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2010. There are often books I enjoy on this list, and sometimes even a few of my most cherished books are mentioned. This year, however, three of my absolutely favorite books are on the list: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones. To make matters even worse, two authors I frequently talk about and recommend to others also made the list: Stephenie Meyer and Ellen Hopkins. Just check out my Reading Lists to see how many times these authors and books appear.

This either says something about me or the condition of America. (My brother assures me it speaks to both.)

I almost feel personally attacked by wanna-be do-gooders who do absolutely nothing to promote critical thinking and social acceptance among America's youth. While you might not feel these books are appropriate for you or your children, that doesn't mean someone out there doesn't need the words contained in these books. I can't imagine where I'd be without Mark Twain, Judy Blume, Katherine Paterson, Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry and Madeleine L’Engle--some of the most frequently challenged authors when I was in high school. And how many children would never have discovered reading without J.K. Rowling, Alvin Schwartz, Maurice Sendak, R.L. Stine and Walter Dean Myers--some of the most frequently challenged authors from the past ten years. And what an un-accepting world we'd live in if young people didn't have access to books by Robert Cormier, Maya Angelou, Stephen Chbosky, Toni Morrison and Harper Lee.

Our shelves would be empty of books, and our children would be without the ideals that can change the world. So even if your favorite books aren't on this year's list, make sure you support other people's freedom to read the books they love.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Audiobooks for the Audiophile: In which I make a new list

In no particular order, here are my ten favorite children's/MG/YA audiobooks. (I addressed the awesome Jim Dale and Katy Kellgren in my last post, so I haven't included their books on this list.)

Half-Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer (Author) and Sean Patrick Reilly (Narrator): I knew when smoky jazz filled the car that I was in for trouble, and I was right. The combination of Eoin Colfer's dime-store humor and Sean Patrick Reilly's melodramatic brogue made me believe I entered the world of a P.I.

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke (Author) and Brendan Fraser (Narrator): I had the biggest crush on Brendan Fraser back in high school, which is why I picked up this recording in the first place. But after the first few minutes, I forgot whose voice I was listening to and got totally enthralled by the story.

Heist Society by Ally Carter (Author) and Angela Dawe (Narrator): This action-packed story works so well as an audiobook I can't imagine it any other way. Although I love Carter's writing so much that if I had read it first I probably wouldn't be able to imagine it in audio form.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (Author) and Various Artists (Narrator): There are a lot of wonderful audio productions of this series, but perhaps my favorite is the one produced by HarperAudio featuring Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Lynn Redgrave and more. It was like listening to a story behind a story--with each narrator you actually hear how passionate they are about the book they're performing.

Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman (Author) and Various Artists (Narrator): It makes sense that you would want to listen to poetry read aloud, but this book is simply amazing when performed by two voices. Unfortunately, this audiobook has become difficult to find (I still have it on tape even though I no longer have a tape player). Hopefully this will be remastered so a new generation of listeners will be able to get the full effect of poems for two voices.

Jazz by Walter Dean Myers (Author), James Williams (Narrator) and Vanesse Thomas (Narrator): This is the perfect example of when great writing and great performance come together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. It utilizes the musical talents of real jazz musicians to compliment the poems and illustrations of a beautiful book.

Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima (Author) and Robert Ramirez (Narrator): I read the first book in this series and then listened to the second, and I can't tell you which way I enjoyed it more. The action is so compelling when read aloud, yet I wanted it to go faster so I eventually had to pick it up and read the third one myself.

Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales by Nelson Mandela (Compiler) and Various Artists (Narrator): I don't know if there has ever been this much buzz about an audiobook before, but with people like Charlize Theron, Samuel L. Jackson, Matt Damon, Whoopi Goldberg, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman lending their voices to raise funds for children affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa, it's really not surprising. What is surprising, however, is the quality of the production and how uniquely beautiful each story is. And both the traditional musical performance and the PDF of bright, bold illustrations included with the recording sets this production apart.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Author) and Jeff Woodman (Narrator): I was extremely skeptical when I picked up this audiobook. After all, how would they be able to turn the magic of an illustrated novel into an audio production? But I couldn't stop listening. This production does one of my favorite books of all time the justice it deserves.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (Author), Emily Janice Card (Narrator) and Emma Bering (Narrator): This audiobook blew my mind. Really. I couldn't wait to listen to Card and Bering give a new outlook on a fascinating historical period with beautiful accents, perfect rhythm and infallible timing. Their skills should make every recording artist green with envy. (It probably also helped that Donnelly referenced some of my all-time favorite bands in the same sentences as my most beloved classical composers.)

Of course I can't just leave a list at ten...

I would be amiss if I didn't mentions that Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book), Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl) and Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) recorded their own books. These authors have an unique ability to make characters come alive both on the page and through voice.

If you want more recommendations, the ALA's new Odyssey Award recognizes the best audiobook produced for YA/children, and AudioFile Magazine presents The Audie Awards for many different categories.

This post is the last in a three-part series dedicated to Molly Jaffa, who loves audiobooks only slightly less than I do.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Audiobooks for the Audiophile: In which narrators take precedence to authors

When I'm looking for a good book to read, I usually base my selection on author. Have I enjoyed a book by this author before? Have authors I love recommended this book? Has the author been compared to another author I love? I don't so much have favorite books as I have favorite authors.

With audiobooks I tend to use a similar philosophy. I look for narrators who can give consistent performances that I can enjoy whether I love the material they're reading or not. There are a couple people who could read the phone book and I'd listen to every word.

For me, there are two truly stand-out narrators in the audiobook profession. Every year they dominate audiobook awards, and their voices have become synonymous with some of the most beloved characters in modern children's lit. The hype their productions have received is well deserved.

Jim Dale and his reading of The Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling played a huge role in making me an audiobook convert. His ability to make those books come alive--and give them a new depth even after reading the books several times--made me want to listen to more. I also watched as several struggling readers followed along with Dale and then took up later HP books to read on their own. Dale has provided the voice for a wider range of characters than just Harry and his friends, including the 100th anniversary recording of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (my personal obsession), Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. You might also recognize his voice as the narrator of the unfortunately short-lived TV series Pushing Daisies.

But Dale is not the only rock star in the audiobook world. Katherine Kellgren has gained well-deserved recognition for her vocalization of L.A. Meyer's Bloody Jack Adventures. My obsession with sea chanteys makes these audiobooks easy to love, but Kellgren brings a depth to Meyer's books that honestly isn't there in the printed version. She takes some fun adventure novels and turns them into something truly special. Meyer even admitted in an interview that Kellgren's narrations have changed the way he writes the book and said the books are edited for "readability by voice as well as eye" to make the recorded books more exciting. Kellgren is heralded for her work on the recordings of Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Series by Maryrose Wood, The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan and the Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer.

So what makes a listenable narrator? Versatility.

There are some audiobooks out there that try to accomplish this with full casts, dramatic sound effects and over-zealous productions. But I'm kind of a purist. The best narrators are those who become the characters so effortlessly that you can no longer tell the difference between the author, the narrator and the main character. While the ability to use lots of accents and distinctive voices helps, it has more to do with pacing and rhythm. As the action heightens and the tension comes to a pinnacle, the narration intensifies. You can hear the excitement and fear and passion not just in the words, but also in the voice. Perhaps even more important are the quiet moments of a novel--what is happening between the words. If a narrator can pull off the subtext of a novel so you can hear the character development that happens between the chapters, yeah, you've got an amazing reader.

This post is the second in a three-part series dedicated to Molly Jaffa, who loves audiobooks only slightly less than I do.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Audiobooks for the Audiophile: In which the journey begins

When I first started writing this post, it was after a conversation I had during lunch at a writing conference where we discussed some of our favorite audiobooks and what makes them so special. The woman I was talking to asked me to post some recommendations, so I got to work making a list. Until I realized how woefully little I actually knew about audiobooks. Sure, I'd listen to a few every year and had a few that were stand-outs. But what really made me enjoy them so much? And why were there a few I couldn't bare to listen to even though I loved reading the book?

The first time I consciously remember listening to an audiobook was back in high school. I'm not a huge fan of British classics (the descriptions are far too plentiful for someone with an American journalism background) but I love the stories, so I listened to David Copperfield, The Lord of the Rings, Vanity Fair. Then I moved on to some American classics I could never seem to find time to sit down and read like The Sound and the Fury and The House of Seven Gables. Then I went through my history phase with Ronald Reagan's autobiography, Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation series and several books by David McCullough. Then there were the book club books like Daughter of Fortune and, yes, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Before I started my freshman year in college, I had gone from listening to books I didn't think I could ever get through just by reading them to listening to the books because they were fun and beautiful. Not that I didn't love those classics, and I learned a ton for the histories, but all of a sudden I wasn't limited to classic literature methodically read by British stage actors. I was listening to full-fledged productions that merge literature and acting and music. It was like candy for my ears.

And now that I've spent the past six months actually paying attention to what I've listening to, I can literally hear the difference.

I don't pretend that I have listened to everything out there, but it's safe to say that my audiobook experiences reach into the hundreds. When I'm listening to a good audiobook, I have to leave ten minutes early for everything because I have to finish the chapter. And the story and the audio production have be of high quality both independently and together, which means the writing has to be stellar, the narration has to be engaging, and the have to work together.

Access to audiobooks is only getting easier because they don't only come on tape--or even CD--anymore. Even as a Mac user, I can download audiobooks directly to my computer and listen to it or upload it to my iPod. And with those great little Play-Aways that I can pick up at the library and plug into my car or my headphones or my computer speakers...yeah, I'm a fan. They're perfect for long road trips or tedious chores or rainy days or any time at all. If you don't know much about audiobook providers, reviews some of the most popular and features additional information about audiobooks.

I've made it my mission to listen to more audiobooks, specifically children's/MG/YA books. To pay attention to why they work. To get lost in the stories along the way. And the more audiobooks I listen to, the more I discover my journey as an audiophile has just begun.

This post is the first in a three-part series dedicated to Molly Jaffa, who loves audiobooks only slightly less than I do.